Lawmaker Retirement Season Starts Ahead Of 2014 Midterm Elections

It's the start of retirement season in the House as members head home after a long, difficult year. Three House members — two Republicans and a Democrat — announced their retirements from Congress this week, ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So with approval ratings so low, if you are a member of Congress, it might not be a bad time to retire. And, in fact, three House veterans - two Republicans and one Democrat - announced this week they will not run for reelection next year. And with more retirements expected to follow, what does it mean for the upcoming midterm elections?

NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian joins us to look ahead to the 2014. Hey there, Charlie.

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So let's do the rundown here, the House members who are stepping down: Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, Iowa Republican Tom Latham and Utah Democrat Jim Matheson. Each has been in Washington for at least a decade. But, you know, what else do they have in common? Is this just about the dysfunction in Washington?

MAHTESIAN: Well, one thing they have in common is that they're more institutionalists than bomb throwers. So they're the kind of people that are very familiar with the system and Congress. And they're very serious about the profession of lawmaking. So I think in one sense that tells you something about the environment that they're operating in right now. And they didn't point to the poisonous environment or blame it for their departures.

There's no question that it played some kind of role in the decision-making process because, after all, this is a very tough job that requires long hours, lots of travel, lots of time away from their families. And at a certain point, if you're a member of Congress, you have to begin to wonder if it's all worth it - given everything you've sacrificed to serve, given the fact that Congress is loathed by the public and you can't accomplish anything.

CORNISH: So given that, is this just of the iceberg? I mean, do you expect to see more retirements in the next few weeks or months?

MAHTESIAN: I do think we'll see a bunch more retirements over the next few months, and maybe even in the next few weeks. The yearend recess, typically for Congress at least, marks the beginning of retirement season because it's this rare time of self-reflection for members. When they go home, they spend time with their families, and it's time for them to begin to take stock of their careers.

And the political calendar also plays a role here, because you've got filing deadlines coming up pretty quickly next year. And national parties want their members to give them plenty of time to recruit candidates or allow potential successors to set up campaign infrastructures. Because there's nothing worse for the national parties than to be caught off guard by the retirement that comes out of the blue fairly deep into the election cycle.

CORNISH: And, of course, national parties always looking ahead to the next election. How do these retirements alter the election math, say, for the House next year, when Democrats need a net gain of something like 17 seats to win a majority?

MAHTESIAN: Two of these districts, the Virginia district in the Iowa district, are fairly competitive for both parties. So that's pretty promising news for Democrats in a year when they're going to need to climb up a fairly steep hill. But the Utah district that's held by Jim Matheson is so strongly Republican and nearly everyone, including Democrats, have pretty much written that seats off.

It's the kind of thing that only a unique kind of Democrat - somebody like Matheson, a unique family brand. It's the kind of see that only someone like him could hold.

CORNISH: So let's get into that a little more, right, because in that Utah district, it does look like Mia Love, who was a big star of the 2012 Republican National Convention, is a frontrunner. Tell us more about her.

MAHTESIAN: By political standards, Mia Love is something of a Republican rock star. Though she lost to Matheson in a squeaker of a race in 2012, she's a mayor who gave a dynamic speech at the Republican convention that year. And she's an African-American conservative in a party that desperately needs to diversify and expand its base.

So, all of that makes her this rare House candidate who already has a national profile before actually winning the House seat. So I think she'll begin this race with a real edge in the Utah.

CORNISH: NPR political editor Charlie Mahtesian, thanks so much, Charlie.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Audie.

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