Democratic Rep. Bill Owens retiring

Greg Nash

Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) announced his retirement Tuesday, marking the exit of another centrist Democrat and opening up a competitive House seat. 

The development gives Republicans a prime shot at picking up the district, a top target that's vexed them for years. Owens's exit means another centrist Democrat is stepping down at the end of the year. Just last week, blue dog Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre (N.C.) announced his retirement plans, and Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) announced last year he, too, will retire at the end of his term.

Owens, who was first elected in a 2009 special election, said in a statement Tuesday he won’t seek a third full term in the House but that he plans to “continue to focus on helping to improve the lives of all New Yorkers, primarily through job creation and economic development” after his time in Congress is done.

New York’s 21st District is a swing district that went for President Obama in the past two elections, and Democrats point to a strong showing in the district from the party’s candidates in previous statewide contests as evidence they could retain the seat.

But the district has long been a top Republican target. Owens won his last election with about 50 percent of the vote and had raised just over half a million dollars for his reelection fight at the close of the last quarter.

Former Bush White House staffer Elise Stefanik is the most prominent Republican in the race, but two others — Tea Party leader and retired Army Maj. Joseph Gilbert and activist Michael Ring — have entered the race as well.

A fourth, John James, the actor who played Jeff Colby on the TV show “Dynasty,” is considering launching a bid, according to the Post Star.

Republican leaders in the district will meet Feb. 5 to vote on a districtwide endorsement, which they hope will help coalesce GOP support behind one candidate in the race.

Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to regain the majority, and the centrist Democratic retirements will complicate that effort. McIntyre and Matheson’s seats are now expected to flip, and Owens’s retirement gives them a headache in upstate New York.

But Democrats expressed confidence that they’ll be able to keep the seat — citing in particular the GOP primary fight developing in the district.

“While Republicans are already fighting a bitter and divisive primary, I have no doubt that another common-sense Democrat will fill his shoes in this competitive district that Democrats have held for the past three elections,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.)

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) called Owens’s retirement “a massive blow to Democrats’ ever-dwindling hopes” for 2014.

“Clearly vulnerable Democrats would rather exit Congress voluntarily than be forced out by voters because of their support for ObamaCare and other disastrous Democrat economic policies. If Democrats in swing districts like the 21st District of New York are heading for the hills, the chances of Nancy Pelosi becoming Speaker of the House have been downgraded again,” he said.

But the party remains optimistic, as retirements from a number of moderate Republicans — Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach, Iowa Rep. Tom Latham, Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, and New Jersey Rep. Jon Runyan — have given them a clearer shot at flipping those districts.

— This post was updated at 1 p.m.