For most of the past year, much of the prevailing narrative about the 2014 midterm elections has focused on the flood of Democratic retirements in the Senate that have made retaining control of the upper body an increasingly difficult task. While a certain amount of turnover is usual, the retirement of longtime Democratic incumbents in red states like West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota, as well as vacancies in potential swing states such as Michigan and Iowa have raised the stakes in the competition for the Senate this year. This is all the more crucial since the Democrats are defending far more seats in November, thus raising the prospect of the Senate flipping to the GOP. But anyone who assumes a Republican majority is guaranteed forgets that there were similar opportunities for the GOP to regain the Senate in 2010 and 2012 that were derailed by poor candidates as well as President Obama’s coattails, at least in the latter contest.
Assumptions that the Republicans will hold onto their House majority seem a lot safer. But even there, the loss of incumbents could hurt. While most of the seats that are being vacated in the lower body—whether by retirement or by the member seeking election to the Senate or other offices—are probably safe bets not to change hands, some of those leaving Congress may put their seats in play. The latest example comes from a Republican who was in no danger of losing in November: Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach. While Gerlach’s departure that was announced today may not be the difference between a Speaker Boehner or a Speaker Pelosi a year from today, Republicans need to understand that his retirement, like that of fellow Republicans such as New Jersey’s Jon Runyan and Virginia’s Frank Wolf, are individual decisions that could prove crucial if 2014 proves not to be as friendly to the party out of power as is traditionally the case.
Gerlach’s seat in the Philadelphia suburbs was a key battleground in the last decade as Democrats devoted considerable resources to ousting him. But after the redrawing of district lines by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature trimmed majority-Democrat towns from his 6th district, Gerlach won in 2012 with better than 57 percent of the vote, his largest majority in six victories. In that same election, Mitt Romney took the sixth with 51 percent of the vote that should, at least in theory, make it a safe red district. But the trend that Republicans have been fighting in the suburbs and exurbs of many major cities is one that runs against the GOP. Though they were once traditional strongholds of Republicans, districts like the sixth have now become battlegrounds.
That shift is partly the result of these formerly heavily white regions becoming more demographically diverse. But it also testifies to the manner in which Democrats have made gains in some swing groups, especially middle-class white women, who have been influenced by liberal rhetoric about the so-called Republican war on women.
His party will miss Gerlach—who was often considered a vulnerable Republican marked for extinction by Democrats—since his retirement moves the district from the safe Republican column to being a swing district. Though the GOP has a marginal edge in registration, the weakness of the top of the Republican ticket in Pennsylvania this year, as Governor Tom Corbett seems to have little chance of reelection, could substantially alter the odds. Mere party affiliation will not hold the sixth for the GOP. The party that nominates the best candidate there will win, regardless of Gerlach’s past success.
The point here is not that this will be the thin edge of a Democratic wedge, but that it, and other potential losses of incumbents, reduces the GOP’s margin of error. Putting together majorities in either the House or the Senate requires a mix of luck, good candidate recruitment, and fundraising. Though Democrats don’t appear likely to win back the House—or at least less so than the GOP is to take the Senate—Gerlach’s departure is bad news for a party that needs its incumbents to stay put every bit as much as their rivals need theirs to remain in office.