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Wave of Congressional retirements open up opportunity for both parties

December 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Three senior members of the House of Representatives have announced retirement plans, giving both parties possible openings for the 2014 midterm elections. Gwen Ifill talks to political editor Christina Bellantoni about races to watch, changing demographics and incumbents who are likely to face tough fights.
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GWEN IFILL: ‘Tis the season for political retirements. Three senior members of the House announced yesterday they are heading for the exits, giving each party new opportunities ahead of the November midterm elections.

We examine the landscape one year out with NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni.

Christina, do these wave, this wave of retirements, if we can call it a wave, does it benefit one party or the other?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, retirements always offer any party an opportunity, because there is a power of incumbency.

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So, Democrats like their chances in Virginia, where Frank Wolf has retired there. He is a longtime Republican. It’s one of those growing outer suburbs that are key to Democrats winning in that battleground state. And then you also see in Iowa, which is a longtime swing state, you have got a Republican, Tom Latham, retiring. He’s been there for many years, never really ran statewide.

They thought maybe he would a Senate candidate. Now he is leaving. So both parties see some potential opportunities there. But then, of course, there is Utah, Jim Matheson. And he is a longtime Democrat. And Republicans say this is a very good seat for them. This is one of seven very Republican districts that George W. Bush won, John McCain won, Mitt Romney won. So that is a seat the Democrats aren’t going to be able to capture.

They need 17 seats to be able to reclaim control of the House. That is a long way away.

GWEN IFILL: And that was always considered to be a long way away, but it doesn’t help at all when people decide to retire.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Not at all. And they don’t like defending open seats that they have.

But the Republicans are actually retiring at a higher rate. It’s 11-1 Republican retirements vs. Democrats. And when you talk to the Democratic campaign committees, they say — they see that as expanding their map. They see opportunities in places like Arkansas, North Carolina, other places in South Florida, some other states like that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the Senate, because, in the Senate, there are also retirements. And there’s also — there’s a better chance of gaining or regaining control for Republicans, perhaps.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Absolutely.

So, the Senate, Republicans need six net seats to be able to take control back. Three of those seats might look pretty easy at this point. You have got West Virginia, where Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, is retiring. You have got South Dakota and Montana. Those are pretty likely Republican pickups at this point. But that’s really only three seats they need to win to win control back.

Now, there are incumbents who are on the ropes there.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s start with North Carolina, Kay Hagan.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes.

So, Kay Hagan, she’s a first-term Democrat. She’s close to the president. She has taken some votes that have put her at risk. But it is one of those states that is really changing in its demographics. President Obama won it in 2008, tried to win it in 2012 and came close. The Democrats are really putting a lot of energy there. If she can hold on, it shows the changing demographics of this area.

GWEN IFILL: And, in Arkansas, Mark Pryor.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes. So, this is a very interesting state, Arkansas.

It used to be a Democratic state. It has been trending Republican. He’s not very popular right now, but he has tried to distance himself from the president as much as he can. There is the power of incumbency, of course, and he is running against a freshman Republican House member, not necessarily that popular, but he is running ahead of Tom Cotton.

GWEN IFILL: Now, there is also an off-chance that Georgia might end up being interesting, because that is an open seat all of a sudden.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes.

So, you have Saxby Chambliss retiring. And one of the Democratic stars of the national party this year is Michelle Nunn. They think that she can raise a lot of money. She’s the daughter of a former senator, well-known. She’s a woman being at the top of the ticket.

At the same time, there is an interesting governor’s race happening with Jimmy Carter’s grandson running. And so maybe that’s going to be too big-name Democrats that could help things. And Republicans have a very intense primary on that Senate side. You’re going to have multiple candidates fighting it out. And that could end up helping the Democrats. It’s another state where changing demographics might be states they could pick up.

GWEN IFILL: I want to step away from all of these seats, because they mean more than just individual races. 2014 could be a real critical election.

And what are the issues that are driving all these elections on either side?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Health care remains a big issue actually for both parties. The Republicans think that this is a winning issue for them. They say they are going to continue to criticize the president, hope that his approval ratings continue to go down. In both House and Senate races, they think that if they tie Democrats to the president and an unpopular health care law, that could help them.

But the president and the Democrats think, well, health care, there’s a lot of good things about it. We are going to keep running on that. And the Democratic message is really pointing at Republicans, well, they just want to repeal all of the good things in the health care law. They just want to focus on a broken website and not necessarily the bigger picture.

So, that will continue to be the battle. It’s the third straight election we’re running on the Affordable Care Act.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, it keeps coming back. But is there another — are there any other issues? Is it spending? Is it taxes? Is it the things we usually are used to hearing about in these kinds of elections?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: There’s plenty of that. And Republicans are saying that they are the fiscal stalwarts.

They are also saying that people like a check and balance on a Democratic administration, so maybe they deserve to keep the divided government. The Democrats are talking about the so-called on women. They’re saying that Republicans want to get involved in women’s health issues, or take those types of things away from them.

So you’re going to keep hearing those sort of themes that have been effective in a lot of places, including in this last governor’s contest in Virginia.

GWEN IFILL: Now, finally, just to wrap it up, people look at midterm elections and it’s usually not good news for an incumbent president. But this is a lame-duck president.

Does the president’s right now rock-bottom unpopularity, at where he is, does that affect what happens in these races and the outcome?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Both parties will say it depends on where you are looking.

In the case of Tom Latham we talked about from Iowa a moment ago, they did a poll in that district. President Obama is at 61 percent disapproval there. That matters. But in a state where it’s maybe more liberal, it’s not necessarily going to matter. The Senate races are probably a little closer to it.

GWEN IFILL: Christina Bellantoni, you spent a couple years here as our political editor. And now you are leaving us and going off to become editor-in-chief of Roll Call.

Thanks so much for everything you have done for us.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Thank you. Miss the NewsHour already.