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Getaway day in the House

Prior to Tuesday, only six members of the House were retiring from the House. That does not include members who are running for other offices or who have resigned — rather, it’s just members who are really walking away from politics at the end of this Congress. Among those six, none were Democrats. Going back over the past 40 years — as far back as Roll Call’s detailed casualty list goes — there have always been retirements from both parties in the House. Clearly, the Democrats’ perfect record in keeping their incumbents in the game would fall at some point.

Republicans, on the other hand, had lost a number of incumbents whose absence from the ballot will make their seats much more competitive. Those included Reps. Jon Runyan (NJ-3) and Tim Griffin (AR-2). These districts went from Likely or Safe Republican in our ratings to Toss-up (for Runyan) and Leans Republican (for Griffin). Additionally, the passing of Rep. Bill Young (R, FL-13) created another Toss-up open seat target for Democrats, which will be filled early next year in a special election.

The Democrats’ ability to keep their caucus together, combined with the handful of meaningful Republican exits, provided a counterweight to Republican hopes that this cycle was turning into 2010 2.0.

Then the dominoes starting falling on Tuesday. And the messages from these new retirements are mixed.

The first domino was the most predictable: Rep. Frank Wolf (R, VA-10) decided to hang ‘em up after more than three decades in the House. We had heard rumblings about Wolf’s retirement for months, although it was unclear whether he’d actually do it. Wolf was in the news last week because he had drawn a credible Democratic opponent, Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust. That triggered us to move the Northern Virginia district from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, but so long as Wolf remained on the ballot, it was nearly impossible to imagine picking against him. Now that he’s headed for the exits, we’re moving the race to Toss-up.

Foust probably has the inside track to the Democratic nomination, although there’s one dark horse possibility: If state Sen. Mark Herring (D), who is on track to become the next attorney general of Virginia as a recount is being conducted, were to somehow lose the election, he could conceivably run here too. On the Republican side, state Del. Barbara Comstock (R) has long been considered a likely candidate to run once Wolf retired; ex-Rep. Artur Davis, a party switcher who held a House seat as a Democrat in Alabama, has also been mentioned. Additionally, conservative state Sen. Dick Black announced Tuesday evening that he is forming an exploratory committee, so he’s another possibility.

Democrats didn’t have too long to crow about their good fortune, though. Rep. Jim Matheson (D, UT-4), who holds the most Republican House seat of any Democratic House incumbent, became the first House Democrat to retire. This prompted a wide swing in our ratings: UT-4 went from Leans Democratic all the way to Likely Republican. Mia Love, who challenged Matheson and barely lost in 2012, was already seeking a rematch here. Let’s see if Democrats can find a candidate: Utah has an inclination, like some other small states, of preferring a bipartisan congressional delegation.

It’s very likely — but not certain — that Love will have an easy path to the nomination. But perhaps another credible Republican will get in given that a Republican elected to this seat should have a hammerlock on it for years, and Love is not a universally admired candidate among Republican operatives. One other glimmer of hope for Democrats: While Mitt Romney won 67% of the vote in this district in 2012, owing in part at least to his Mormonism, John McCain got a less overpowering 56%. Still, we’re largely just offering a few contrarian points here: Ultimately, Mia Love is very likely going to represent this district in the next Congress.

Just when we thought the dust had settled, yet another domino fell, and this one was really out of left field: Rep. Tom Latham (R, IA-3) is also leaving the House. Latham, who won an impressive victory over then-Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) in a member-vs-member race in 2012, was a rumored Senate candidate, but he took a pass and is now leaving government altogether.

Democrats like their candidate here, former state Sen. Staci Appel, but we held this race at Likely Republican because of Latham’s strength as a candidate. Now it’s a Toss-up, just like Wolf’s district. We need to see how the candidate fields shape up in both the Iowa and Virginia seats and then reevaluate.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

There were three House retirements today, one by a Democrat and two by Republicans. The Democratic retirement makes UT-4 the easiest pickup for either party in next year’s midterm. The two Republican retirements, meanwhile, give Democrats more than a fighting chance in two closely contested districts that are probably necessary pieces of any future Democratic House majority. Now that the Democrats are essentially shut out from much of the South — the heart of the old New Deal Democratic hammerlock on the House that lasted with few interruptions from 1930 through 1994 — they need to win seats where they have shown some strength in recent presidential elections and that are among the most politically balanced in the country. IA-3 (51% Obama in 2012) and VA-10 (49% Obama) certainly qualify.

It’d be tempting to call the day a victory for Democrats, but we see it more as a draw. Yes, there were two Republican retirements to just one Democratic one, and Democrats have done much better in the retirement contest than Republicans (as detailed above). But the GOP gets a nearly surefire pickup, while the Democrats just expanded the playing field. That’s a trade we suspect the Republicans will take because they already hold a sizable House majority.

Given what we know about midterms — the president’s party often does poorly — and Obama’s poor approval ratings, a Democratic takeover of the House is still highly, highly unlikely. But some valuable pieces of a future Democratic House majority are now within grasp for Democrats. It’ll be interesting to see how many of these puzzle pieces the Democrats can grab and stow away for future elections. On the other side, Republicans also have an opportunity to replace some older incumbents with new blood in a year where the political winds might be blowing in their direction.

Finally: The House retirement game is far from over, we suspect. Over the past 40 years, an average of 22 House members has retired each cycle. Remember, those are actual retirements — members who leave to run for other offices are not included in that total. With nine total House retirements, the 2014 cycle now matches the 1984 cycle for the fewest recorded in that 40-year period. But there’s a lot of time to go, and many frank conversations to be had by members of Congress and their families over this holiday season.

So more retirements are very likely coming, and they might be surprises — like others have been so far this year.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes