Three longtime members of the House, including two who represent swing districts, announced their retirements unexpectedly on Tuesday, joining a wave of lawmakers from both parties who have decided to leave Congress after the midterm elections next year. Representatives Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican in his 17th term; Tom Latham, an Iowa Republican in his 10th term; and Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat in his seventh term, surprised their colleagues on Capitol Hill and voters in their districts with their decisions, which came as Congress was wrapping up one of its least productive and most contentious years in recent memory.
When long-time lawmakers announce their retirement from Congress, folks on Capitol Hill tend to take notice. But when three veteran incumbents, all of whom represent competitive districts, head for the exits on the same afternoon, it raises more than a few eyebrows.
All told, there are now nine House members retiring at the end of this Congress, which isn't an especially large number, at least at this point in the process. But notice the partisan breakdown: eight of the nine are Republicans. Given the high re-election rate for incumbents, the ratio is welcome news at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which certainly wants more vacant "red" seats that could turn "blue."
(This does not include the 13 House members who are giving up their seats to run for governor or the U.S. Senate. But even within this group, Republicans are putting more seats in play: eight of the 13 are GOP incumbents.)
Yesterday's announcements were a mixed bag for the parties. Frank Wolf, for example, represents Virginia's very competitive 10th district, which backed President Obama in 2008, and very nearly supported the Democrat again in 2012. Tom Latham represents Iowa's 3rd, which is easily the most competitive in the state. This is not to say they'll be easy Democratic pick-ups, but rather, they'll be seats Republicans will struggle to defend -- and without the retirements, they likely wouldn't be in play at all.
The news wasn't all good for Democrats, however. Utah's Jim Matheson is not only the first House Democrat to retire this cycle, he's also clearing the way for a likely Republican successor.
House Democrats will need a net gain of 17 seats to reclaim the majority, a tall order for a president's party in his sixth year. Yesterday may have improved Dems' odds, but only a little.