In a shocking blow to the Democratic Party’s hope to regain control of the House of Representatives, upstate New York Congressman Bill Owens (D-NY) announced on Tuesday he will not seek re-election in 2014.
The decision puts New York’s 21st Congressional District in play, as Republicans believe they have a good chance to win the seat.
In a statement released by his office, Owens offered little insight into why he chose not to run for re-election. Owens simply stated, “It is time for me to undertake new endeavors and spend more time with my family.”
Owens first came to Congress in November 2009 after he won the famous NY-23 special election that drew national attention and was the first indication of the Tea Party movement’s growing power. In that election, Dede Scozzafava, the candidate picked by the Republican Party establishment, faced strong competition for Republican voters from Tea Party backed Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate. Scozzafava withdrew from the race days before the election and endorsed Owens.
Owens narrowly defeated Hoffman in the 2009 special election, 49 percent to 46 percent. He also narrowly won the 2010 general election in a three way race with Republican nominee Matt Doheny and Conservative Party nominee Hoffman. He was elected to represent the newly formed 21st Congressional District in 2012, defeating Doheny once again, this time by only two percent, 50 percent to 48 percent.
Owens joins several other prominent House Democrats, including Jim Matheson (D-UT), Mike McIntyre (D-NC), and George Miller (D-CA), who have recently announced their retirements.
Until the election of Owens in 2009, the area had not been represented in Congress by a Democrat in more than a century. The sprawling swing district, comprised of 12 rural counties and several small cities, voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Obama’s 52 percent in the district in 2012 was 10 percent below the 62 percent he received in the entire state of New York.
Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate who grew up in the district and later served as an aide in the George W. Bush White House, announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination several months ago. Joseph Gilbert, an Army veteran with 20 years of service, and Michael Ring were also candidates for the Republican nomination prior to the announcement that Owens was retiring. With Owens not running, Doheny may consider making a third run at the seat.
Stepanik’s early start appears to have given her an advantage in the race for the Republican nomination. Gilbert, however, who currently serves as the St. Lawrence County Director of Emergency Services, publicly aligns with the Tea Party movement and is looking for support from voters who backed Hoffman, the Conservative Party nominee in 2009.
Stepanik’s recent decision to speak at this month’s annual New York Conservative Party Political Action Conference indicates that she is not conceding Tea Party voters to Gilbert and intends to try to secure the nomination from both parties. New York is one of the few states that allows candidates to run on more than one party line and combines the total votes from each party line to determine the election winner.
Owens’ decision was so unexpected it left the local Democratic Party flat footed, and it is unclear if a consensus candidate will emerge.
Owens faced potential criticism if he ran for re-election on ethical issues. Politico reported, “In December 2011, Owens took a trip to Taiwan organized by a lobbying firm, but paid for by the Chinese Culture University,” an arrangement that may have not have fully complied with House Ethics rules. In 2012, Owens paid back the $22,000 the Chinese Culture University spent on his trip.