Parties Push For House Retirements

Reid Wilson
National Journal

In 1992, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson won re-election by a single point. Two years later, he defeated Republican Bernie Omann again, but by just two points. He hasn't faced a serious re-election bid since.

But this year, more than 18 months before Election Day, House Republicans are trying to convince Peterson he's in for a tough race. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already spent a small amount of money on advertisements in Peterson's district, and the committee has a press staffer dedicated to pushing opposition research to reporters in Democratic-held areas that, like Peterson's, voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.

The amount of money and effort Republicans are putting into Peterson's race, at the moment, is negligible. The committee spent just $2,000 on the early advertisement, a drop in the bucket compared with the millions spent every cycle on competitive races. But the goal isn't to beat Peterson so far out -- it's to get in his head on a daily basis and, eventually, to get Peterson to retire rather than run for a 13th term.

So far, Peterson doesn't seem bothered by the Republican attention. "They don't have anybody else to go after," he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last month, when the ads ran. "It's kind of ridiculous, but whatever."

But when he goes home next week, Republicans will seek to remind Peterson that he's not alone. The NRCC has a dedicated tracker set to follow Peterson around his district, an increasingly common tactic designed both to collect potentially damaging footage for opposition television advertisements and to irritate the members themselves (Rep. Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, lost his seat in 2010 after an altercation with an NRCC tracker showed up in campaign advertisements). The NRCC will also send a mobile billboard by Peterson's home, criticizing his recent vote against repealing ObamaCare.

Peterson is among a small handful of members on both sides of the aisle that Democrats and Republicans are trying to push toward the exit. The two parties will have a better chance at winning over those seats, the thinking goes, if the incumbents quit, than if they have to beat a sitting member of Congress.

Republicans will train their spotlight on members like Ron Barber of Arizona, Louise Slaughter of New York, Lois Capps of California, Oregon's Peter DeFazio and Maine's Mike Michaud. Democrats hope to convince California Republicans Gary Miller and Buck McKeon, Bill Young and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Virginia's Frank Wolf, Iowa's Tom Latham and Dave Reichert of Washington to quit.

The NRCC has paid for advertisements against Barber, too, and they have a handful of trackers following Democratic incumbents around their districts. Democrats have paid for automated calls targeting Miller, Young and Ros-Lehtinen, and for billboards in Latham's and Young's districts. So far, none of those efforts have been successful. In fact, not a single member of Congress has said definitively they will not run for office next year; only a small handful have said they will vacate their House seats, all in pursuit of higher office.

In a sense, the early activism is a sign of an incumbent's strength. In an era where a candidate's party affiliation usually matters more than their record or reputation, it is rare for a member of Congress -- especially a member of the House of Representatives -- to build a relationship that transcends party.

Peterson is one of those members who would present a better opportunity for Republicans if he quits than if he stays. He has won his district, which runs along North and South Dakota from the Canadian border nearly to Iowa, both in wave years like 2010 (he took 55 percent of the vote even as a fellow long-serving Minnesota Democrat, Rep. Jim Oberstar, lost his seat) and in years when a Republican presidential candidate has carried the seat (George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney all won more than 50 percent of the vote there).

With the rise of hyper-partisan gerrymandering, in which many districts are drawn to protect incumbents, and at a time when most districts belong firmly to one party or the other, open seats give both parties opportunities they might not otherwise have, and give districts the chance to reset and vote according to their natural partisan leanings.

In 2012, Republicans won five of the 21 districts in which incumbent Democrats decided to retire or seek other office; incumbents like Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Mike Ross of Arkansas and Heath Shuler of North Carolina proved they were the only Democrats capable of holding their districts, all of which are now represented by Republicans. In 2010, the Republican wave helped the GOP win 12 of 17 Democratic open seats. Democrats snagged 13 of the 27 seats retiring Republicans left open during the 2008 elections, and eight of the 22 seats Republican incumbents vacated in 2006.

While both sides push the other team's members to call it quits, they are working feverishly to convince their own members to stick it out for one more term.

Some members get the carrot. Barber, for example, will get fundraising help from ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, his old boss; Giffords and husband Mark Kelly have told Barber they will help him raise money around the country. A member might be promised a seat on a prominent committee -- it didn't go unnoticed among observers that Rep. Tim Griffin, the Arkansas Republican, won a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee the same day he disavowed interest in a statewide race next year.

Other members get the strong arm. In 2010, as Rep. Jim Gerlach was exploring a bid to become governor of Pennsylvania, NRCC chairman Pete Sessions was so insistent that Gerlach run for re-election instead that Gerlach began avoiding Sessions on the House floor, according to Republicans present at the time. Eventually, Gerlach dropped out of the governor's race, and Sessions got his wish.

The relative dearth of competitive House seats means both Democrats and Republicans have to push to expand the playing field. And there's no better way than by convincing a member to call it quits.