Wolf’s Retirement Opens Another Battleground District for Democrats

Democrats are on defense nationally, but they do have a trio of opportunities in long-held GOP districts.

GLEN ALLEN, VA - AUGUST 17: U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) speaks during a campaign rally of Republican U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) at West Springfield High School August 17, 2012 in Springfield, Virginia. Rep. Ryan continued to campaign for the upcoming general elections.
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Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Dec. 17, 2013, 9:44 a.m.

The polit­ic­al trends clos­ing out 2013 have not been kind to Demo­crats, and their chances of re­tak­ing the House next year are slim. But the year ends with a table of op­por­tun­it­ies set in the lower cham­ber, most re­cently Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Frank Wolf’s an­nounce­ment Tues­day that he won’t seek reelec­tion in Vir­gin­ia. Wolf’s re­tire­ment leaves a third battle­ground, sub­urb­an, Re­pub­lic­an-held con­gres­sion­al dis­trict wide open in 2014, giv­ing Demo­crats the chance to make a strong run at a trio of seats that oth­er­wise would have been far out of reach.

Demo­crats have plenty of vul­ner­able House seats to de­fend in 2014, but all of them thus far are set to have in­cum­bents de­fend­ing them, save for the bright-red Utah dis­trict held by Rep. Jim Math­eson, who also an­nounced his re­tire­ment Tues­day. Mean­while, two-term Rep. Jon Run­yan, R-N.J., de­cided not to run for reelec­tion last month, and Rep. Bill Young died in Oc­to­ber, trig­ger­ing a spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida’s Pinel­las County.

All three dis­tricts are an­ces­tral Re­pub­lic­an ter­rit­ory but now split nearly 50-50 in na­tion­al polit­ics. Wolf’s seat, like Young’s, changed dra­mat­ic­ally dur­ing his time in of­fice — from a re­li­ably Re­pub­lic­an area to more evenly split ter­rit­ory over the course of 33 years. In this year’s Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race, Re­pub­lic­an At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Cuc­cinelli car­ried Wolf’s dis­trict in Wash­ing­ton’s sub­urbs by 1 per­cent­age point over Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe, ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg. That’s the same mar­gin with which Mitt Rom­ney won the dis­trict in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, while Pres­id­ent Obama won a 51 per­cent to 48 per­cent vic­tory there in 2008.

Obama’s 1-point loss in Vir­gin­ia’s 10th Dis­trict was ac­tu­ally the worst Demo­crats did in any of the three now open seats. Obama car­ried Young’s Flor­ida dis­trict by 1 point and Run­yan’s New Jer­sey seat by 4 points in 2012. Obama’s vic­tory in 2008 helped sweep a Demo­crat, John Adler, in­to the New Jer­sey seat for the first time in dec­ades.

But all three Re­pub­lic­ans, es­pe­cially the vet­er­an ap­pro­pri­at­ors Wolf and Young, com­pletely res­isted the polit­ic­al cur­rents in their dis­tricts in 2012, thanks to built-up years of mod­er­ate repu­ta­tions and force of per­son­al­ity. Run­yan’s 9-point vic­tory was the smal­lest of the trio in 2012.

That made Run­yan and Young par­tic­u­larly rare com­mod­it­ies in this Con­gress, as two of just 17 House Re­pub­lic­ans from dis­tricts that Obama car­ried in last year’s elec­tion. Wolf’s dis­trict falls just out­side that cat­egory; Rom­ney’s mar­gin was barely more than 4,000 votes. Whomever Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate to run in those three open seats, they won’t have the ad­vant­age of time-tested fa­mili­ar­ity that Wolf and his col­leagues would have had in reelec­tion runs.

Mean­while, na­tion­al Demo­crats have can­did­ates ready to go in all three dis­tricts. Just last week, the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee touted Fair­fax County Su­per­visor John Foust’s de­cision to run for Wolf’s seat, and the DCCC has already lined up be­hind wo­men run­ning for the oth­er two open seats: county of­fice­hold­er Aimee Bel­gard in New Jer­sey and Alex Sink, a former gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee, in March’s Flor­ida spe­cial elec­tion.

House Demo­crats are guar­an­teed noth­ing in 2014, and the cur­rent polit­ic­al cli­mate fore­tells more pain than gain. Over the last two months, they have sur­rendered their lead in gen­er­ic-bal­lot polls. But Wolf’s re­tire­ment opens up a third op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats to play of­fense in a dis­trict where there was no op­por­tun­ity be­fore.

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