Three open seats (yes, already)
© Greg Nash

The new session of Congress is only a day old, but Democrats already have newfound opportunities to cut into the GOP’s historically large House majority.

Rep. Chris Gibson’s (R-N.Y.) Tuesday announcement that he’ll retire after this term makes him the third swing-district Republican who has already announced he won’t be back in 2016. 

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) also preemptively said this term will be his last, while Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) resigned Monday after he pleaded guilty to tax evasion. 

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The trio of open seats presents an early chance for Democrats to cut into the GOP’s 58-seat margin, as President Obama won in all three districts at least once. They’re also must-wins if House Democrats hope to eventually take back the lower chamber.

“Democrats start out the 2016 election with three opportunities in competitive seats where the Republican incumbents have previously fortified themselves,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Jesse Ferguson. “None of these seats are easy for Democrats to win but they can be competitive, and Republicans now start the cycle on defense in three open seats before the gavel had even dropped.”

Republicans privately acknowledge that all three seats could be tough holds in a presidential year, though Grimm’s decision to resign rather than battle on with the guilty plea deal over his head almost certainly increases their ability to hang on to his Staten Island-based seat in a special election. 

Democrats have also struggled in all three districts in recent years, recruiting weak candidates against both Gibson and Grimm last cycle and failing to come close against Fitzpatrick.

“The House Democratic Caucus is at a historic low in membership and is now even more liberal and extreme than at any time in recent memory,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ian Prior. “This will only make it more difficult for Democrats to win over the hard working families in Pennsylvania and New York that have consistently chosen to be represented by common-sense Republicans.”

Still, Democrats are excited about their prospects in these seats this time around. And they admit that if they’re going to make progress toward narrowing the GOP’s majority and competing for House control on a national map that leans Republican, they’ll have to win districts like these.

“Republicans who are attempting to be moderate and represent swing districts are having a tough time enjoying and succeeding in Congress and are deciding to retire. It gives us some good opportunities,” said Ali Lapp, the executive director of the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC. “These are the kinds of districts Democrats have to win in order to take the majority back. And open seats in some of these districts makes it much easier for us to do.”

Both parties say Gibson’s suburban and exurban district outside New York City appears to be Democrats’ best opportunity — in a statement DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward promised the race would be “one of the most competitive in the country” next cycle.

Obama carried the district by 6 points in 2012 and by 8 in 2008, but Gibson’s popularity in the district has made him a tough target. 

Democrats also fizzled in recruiting there last time — strategists privately admit Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder and New Republic owner and editor-in-chief Chris Hughes, was one of their biggest disappointments of the 2014 cycle.

Democrats are hoping with Gibson out they can finally convince Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, who they’ve tried and failed to recruit before, to make a run. 

Meanwhile, Republicans mention a number of potential candidates: Rensselaer County Executive Kathleen Jimino, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, state Sen. James Seward, and Assemblymen Steve McLaughlin and Peter Lopez.

Grimm’s seat, on the other hand, appears to be much harder for Democrats.

Special elections are notoriously unpredictable and the district leans only slightly Democratic at the presidential level. However, Republicans are confident that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) deep unpopularity on Staten Island will hurt his party badly.

National and local Republicans have begun to coalesce around Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan though he may face opposition from Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis. Party leaders will ultimately choose their nominee. 

Donovan’s involvement in the investigation into the death of African-American Eric Garner, a case where a jury declined to bring to trial charges against the white police officer involved, could make for an interesting race. Still, Staten Island’s large population of police and other city workers means the issue isn’t likely to be a winning one for Democrats in the district.  

Democrats are high on Assemblyman Michael Cusick as a potential candidate, and former Rep. Mike McMahon also hasn’t ruled out a race. But they privately admit that a special election would be tough in a district where they’ve long struggled — Grimm won comfortably despite facing charges last fall — and that even if they do win it would be a tough seat to hold.

The battle for Fitzpatrick’s exurban district outside of Philadelphia could be competitive as well — President Obama carried it in 2008 and lost it by one tenth of a percent in 2012. Both sides say it’s unclear which potential candidates might be interested in a seat. Meanwhile, Democrats don’t expect Fitzpatrick’s 2012 challenger, former CIA officer Kevin Strouse (D), to run again.

Jonathan Easley contributed.