Two more lawmakers join centrist exodus

Greg Nash

Reps. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) added their names on Wednesday to the growing list of retirements that have suddenly scrambled the 2014 House landscape.

There has been an exodus in the House of centrists from both parties in recent weeks, which has created chaos for the midterms. But the thinning of the small herd of less-partisan members could also mean more political gridlock in the future.

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McIntyre and McCarthy join Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who decided to call it quits in late December. Democrats privately admit that McIntyre and Matheson are the only Democrats who could have given their party a shot at holding their seats. Republicans believe they have an outside shot at McCarthy’s Democratic-leaning Long Island district.

Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), who along with McIntyre and Matheson is a member of the ever-shrinking centrist Blue Dog Coalition, is leaving to run for governor, and Republicans hope they can put his seat in play as well.

But that list pales in comparison to the number of Republicans in competitive seats who have called it quits.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (Pa.) announced on Tuesday that he would retire, joining Reps. Jon Runyan (N.J.), Tim Griffin (Ark.), Tom Latham (Iowa) and Frank Wolf (Va.) in heading for the exits. Former Rep. Bill Young (Fla.) died in late 2013 after announcing he would retire, triggering a special election set for March.

All are establishment or centrist Republicans who would have had the upper hand in their reelection battles, but their districts could be in play now that they’re gone.

Other establishment Republicans — including Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Steve Daines (Mont.) and Bill Cassidy (La.) — are also running for the Senate. Democrats are looking to make Capito’s and Daines’s districts competitive.

The rash of retirements has created a big shift in the competitive House landscape — and potentially a more expensive election cycle for both parties. Democrats now have two all-but-certain losses, however they also have a number of opportunities that weren’t there a month ago.

Democratic and Republican strategists say the retirements have injected chaos into an election year many thought would feature a short list of intriguing races. 

Still, both sides claim to have the upper hand.

“It’s been a roller coaster. At the end of the day they’ve just lost two seats. As far we’re concerned they need to pick up 19 seats now instead of 17,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said. “I’d rather be us than them right now.”

“We’re in much better shape than House Republicans — the number of competitive open seats in the battlefield is approaching double digits because moderate Republicans are jumping ship in droves,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Emily Bittner said.

This year’s election cycle may have just gotten a lot more expensive as well. While both sides can pocket the millions they once earmarked for Matheson’s and McIntyre’s districts, the new targets are largely in much more expensive media markets. Runyan’s and Gerlach’s seats are both in the pricey Philadelphia media market, while most voters in Wolf’s district are in the expensive Washington, D.C., market.

“The Philly TV stations are popping champagne this week. They’re going to bank some serious money,” one national GOP strategist said.

That price tag could benefit Democrats. The DCCC had an $8 million cash advantage over the NRCC as of November, though outside spending has given the GOP a boost in the last few election cycles.

“We just have more opportunities out of this commotion than they do,” one Democratic operative said. “You stack all of those open seats, Gerlach, Runyan, Young, Griffin, Latham; Wolf versus McIntyre and Matheson, I’d take that every day of the week.”

Now, the 2014 elections could produce an even more polarized and dysfunctional Congress than the current one.

“The mass exodus of moderate Republicans coupled with the retirements of Blue Dogs mean there will be fewer and fewer members of Congress representing a district that voted for a president of the opposite party. That means more ideological purity and less compromise,” one Democrat with deep ties to the party’s centrists said.

There are just seven incumbent House Democrats running for reelection in 2014 in districts President Obama lost in 2012, and 13 Republicans running in districts he won.

The trend of disappearing centrists has been going on for decades, but it accelerated starting in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats intentionally and effectively targeted middle-of-the-road Republicans in left-leaning seats, wiping them out in suburban districts nationwide and especially in the Northeast.

Republicans returned the favor in 2010, wiping out Blue Dogs and other centrist Democrats in rural red districts, primarily in the South. Redistricting and gerrymandering by both parties before the 2012 election only further shrank the number of swing districts around the country.

That has had a big policy effect. For instance, of the 34 Democrats who voted against ObamaCare, four are still in Congress and running for reelection.

Former Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a one-time Blue Dog leader, predicted the center will continue to shrink in the next few elections.

“There’s been such a corrosive effect [of] 50 years of gerrymandering on the political system … and the trend is this is going to get worse,” Tanner said. “In the short term, I’m pessimistic. It’s reached a point where the system has broken down.”

 

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