U.S. Rep. Bill Owens will not seek another term in office this fall, leaving the Democrats short another incumbent candidate in their dwindling hopes to wrest control of the House from the Republican Party.
The Plattsburgh attorney and retired Air Force captain made the sudden announcement Tuesday, about eight months after filing his statement of candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission. Owens cited his desire to “undertake new endeavors” and spend more time with family as his reasons for retiring from office at the end of the year.
“We came to this after some struggle over the Christmas holidays,” he said during a conference call after his announcement. “It’s a decision we came to as a group, and it’s one I’m very comfortable with.”
Owens acknowledged having “some level of frustration” in the Republican-led House, namely with the stalled farm bill. But he said his decision to retire wasn’t influenced by anything at the Capitol.
“That is not a driving force here,” he said.
Owens, a moderate Democrat, defied odds in winning races in a district considered a Republican stronghold for years. He fought off Republican and Conservative opponents to narrowly win a special election in 2009, after U.S. Rep. John McHugh was named secretary of the Army.
A year later, Owens narrowly bested venture capitalist Matthew Doheny for a full term in what was then the 23rd Congressional District. Doheny lost the race by roughly 2,000 votes.
Owens defeated Doheny again during a rematch in 2012. With only a 3,000-vote margin of victory, however, the race was far from a mandate for the incumbent.
Owens was also the subject of a House Ethics Committee report in November, which found that a 2012 trip he took to Taiwan that was organized by a lobbying group and paid for by a private university was improper. The committee, though, acknowledged that Owens paid back the money in question — about $22,000 — and considered the matter resolved.
Owens had $447,930 in his campaign coffers at his last filing in October.
Owens’ looming departure comes at a time when Democrats are facing an uphill battle to regain a majority in the House during midterm elections this fall. Republicans now hold 233 seats in the 435-member legislative body, meaning Democrats could gain control by adding 16 seats this year.
Consternation over the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and President Barrack Obama’s dwindling approval rating could also factor into congressional races.
Already, three Republican challengers have filed paperwork for Owens’ seat: Elise Stefanik, a former aide to President George W. Bush; retired Army Maj. Joseph Gilbert; and Michael Ring, a broadcast engineer. Owens said the mounting list of challengers played no role in his decision.
“I’m not afraid of another fight,” he said. “I just think it’s time to move on.”
The Democrats haven’t lined up a replacement candidate for Owens but say they remain confident of the party’s chances to hold the seat. U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Republicans already appear divided, much like they did when Owens first won the seat five years ago.
“While Republicans are already fighting a bitter and divisive primary, I have no doubt that another common-sense Democrat will fill his shoes in this competitive district that Democrats have held for the past three elections,” he said in a news release.
Likewise, Owens believes his party stands an excellent chance of winning the district, which he described as a mix of “Rockefeller Republicans and Reagan Democrats.” He said Obama managed a healthy 5 percentage point lead in the district in 2012 — an indicator that it’s more moderate now than it was in the past.
“I was a surprise in 2009,” he said. “There’s another pleasant surprise out there, I’m sure.”