Sen. Ted Cruz's hardline on the government shutdown is forcing Republicans to decide whether to embrace heated rhetoric ahead of the 2014 Senate primaries -- music to Harry Reid's ears.
Republican primaries in states like Georgia, Alaska and North Carolina are turning into the kind of tea party-driven fights that put winnable races for the GOP in Democrats’ column the past two elections.
And as the shutdown drags on and Republicans dig in on the debt ceiling, Republicans are only digging the hole deeper, endangering what should be their year to take back the Senate, with early warning shots that they could nominate candidates who will have a tough time winning a statewide election.
The battle is far from over, but already Republicans and Democrats alike are pointing the finger squarely at Cruz, who both sides credit with fueling the strategy of linking Obamacare to the government funding fight -- without an obvious exit strategy.
“Sen. Cruz thinks his boisterous efforts on defunding the healthcare law will help defeat the likes of Hagan, Pryor and other Democrats in swing states, but this is to his own detriment,” complained one Senate GOP aide to MSNBC.com. “Instead he has become the Senate's new Jim DeMint, raising money off being loud, bringing division within his party, and causing influential leaders to be at great risks to under qualified candidates in their primaries.”
Democrats are gladly fanning the flames, too. Obama’s former campaign arm, Organizing for America, is up with a new ad this morning blaming “Tea Party Republicans [for] threatening an economic shutdown."
On CNN’s State of the Union, Cruz scoffed at the idea that he was doing his party harm. But as many Republicans will point out -- if the shutdown hadn’t occurred on Tuesday, dominating the news, all the focus would have been on the glitches in the newly-opened health care exchanges -- feeding the anti-Obamacare narrative they they will be the driver of the 2014 Senate fight.
“Cruz’s tactics have obscured that message,” said one GOP Senate strategist. “ I don’t know if he has a master plan for how long he can pull people along by the nose, but I don’t think he’s a permanent condition. His welcome is wearing thin even among conservatives who are in elected office.”
But Cruz has put Senate candidates last week in an unenviable position --forced to answer who they would stand with if they were elected in DC -- and their positions even, at times, were with counter to their state’s current senators, who didn’t back Cruz’s insistence not to vote for cloture on the House CR initially.
In Georgia, the site of maybe the most volatile GOP primary next year, it wasn’t just Rep. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey -- seen as the most conservative and most worrisome to Republican strategists if they win -- who said they would side with Cruz. The entire field said they would have backed his controversial tactics, including Rep. Jack Kingston, former Secretary of State Karen Handel and businessman David Perdue, the cousin of the state’s former governor. That’s counter to how both the state’s GOP senators -- Saxby Chambliss, the man they’re vying to replace, and Johnny Isakson -- both voted.
Not helping matters, Republicans say -- one of the leading voices on the movement in the House, Rep. Tom Graves, hasn't just kept a hardline on the defunding strategy may have passed on the Senate race, but GOP observers in the state say he’s also helping push the field further to the right.
The volatility of the GOP primary race there is one reason Democrats made getting a top recruit in place, and they turned to Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and former CEO of the volunteer organization Points of Light, where she worked closely with former President George H.W. Bush.
“Ted Cruz and Tom Graves have boxed the GOP in in D.C. and they’ve done the same thing here in Georgia with our Senate candidates. They’ve all been forced to support what’s going on and move toward the right,” said Georgia GOP strategist Joel McElhannon. “Right now it’s not helping our Senate candidates position well against [Nunn] who can adopt the national Democratic narrative that Republicans are shutting everything down.”
In North Carolina, where Republicans hope to knock off first term Democrat Kay Hagan, the whole primary field has also said they would back Cruz's defunding strategy -- also squarely at odds with the state's GOP Sen. Richard Burr, who called it "the dumbest idea I’d ever heard of."
Even in Alaska, it’s making for some strange bedfellows. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell may be the favorite of DC Republicans but he faces a primary challenge from former 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller, who beat Lisa Murkowski in a primary but went on to lose to her as a write-in candidate, and now has a three-way primary with the entrance of former natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan. Miller has firmly backed Cruz, but Treadwell also, to the surprise of some, pledged he would “stand and work with Cruz and Lee.”
Republicans argue it’s a gamble, though, that 13 months out from the election voters will remember the political posturing that took place during this fight, especially as both sides are uncertain how the stalemate ends. Instead, they argue it’s the president’s health care law, which remains heavily unpopular in many of the targeted states, that will be their catalyst to victory.
But the problem for Republicans -- it’s the right who’s the most energized in the primaries and could end up not just picking but also forcing candidates to take more conservative positions in these primaries.
"The enthusiasm in the party is coming from the right, and that exhibits itself in a primary," said Harvard Institute of Politics Director Trey Grayson. A former Kentucky secretary of state, Grayson experienced that first hand in 2010 -- the early favorite in the primary, he eventually lost to now-Sen. Rand Paul.
That seat stayed in Republican hands, and Grayson noted other failed GOP Senate nominees didn't have the political skills and savvy Paul has . Even though he comes from the same ideological wing as Cruz, Paul hasn't taken up the defunding yoke with quite as much fervor as Cruz has, taking a more pragmatic approach. And he has stuck with backing McConnell in his own primary challenge that's drawn ire from other conservative groups.
But Grayson says the internal discord is "frustrating to watch."
"When you lose a couple of presidential elections in a row, these are the kind of things that happen," said Grayson. "We're doing some soul searching."
Still, being on the precipice of victory is a scenario Republicans have found themselves in before. With favorable math and even a wind at their backs, they didn’t capture the Senate in either 2010 or 2012. In 2010 they picked up five seats in a huge wave year, but still lost winnable races in Nevada, Delaware, and even Colorado with problematic candidates. In 2012, Democrats were defending more than double the races that Republicans were, yet the GOP squandered away winnable races in Missouri and Indiana as Democrats actually picked up three seats.
Those five missed opportunities, when added together, wouldn’t have given the GOP the majority, but could have made it a lot easier to even sway conservative Democrats to their side in the shutdown fight, or make a more successful pitch to even delay the health care individual mandate.
To pick up the upper chamber next year, Republicans face a map that runs through many red states held by Democrats and should be squarely in their column. They have the upperhand in seats with Democratic retirements -- West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana -- but still need three more. They’d like to find those in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, all states where Democratic incumbents must defend territory where President Obama lost last year. But hoping messy primaries can give them an opening, Democrats have put GOP-held Georgia and Kentucky in play.
The seeds could also be there for at least some more primary discomfort in the Bluegrass State, making both Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election challenge more difficult both in the primary and general.
McConnell didn’t vote with the Cruz/Lee bloc to oppose cloture on the House version of the CR, and his primary opponent, Matt Bevin, has attacked him for it, aided by the Senate Conservatives Fund, who’s named McConnell a top target.
But Republicans counter that these primaries are far from settled that the president’s refusal to negotiate and his hard-line against Republicans will backfire -- and that the shutdown battle could be a distant memory by next November, again giving voters a way to register their dissatisfaction with Obamacare.
“It's too early to know what, if any, political impact the shutdown will have on 2014, but what we do know is that Democrats have controlled Washington for the last five years and during that time it has been a dysfunctional disaster,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring. “The dysfunction of a shutdown or a failure to even try to negotiate hurts institutional Washington, which hurts already weak incumbents facing a difficult political environment like Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, and Mark Begich. Democrats are the status quo in Washington, which gives us an opportunity since people do not like the results – or lack thereof - on their watch."
But, it’s Democrats who see the early signs of deja vu again, and hope holding the Senate, yet again, is their hat trick.
“Republicans have not missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, putting Democrats in a strong position to keep the majority next November,” said DSCC spokesman Matt Canter. “Republican recklessness and bitter partisanship is exactly what voters think is wrong with Washington. By embracing the Cruz strategy en masse, GOP senate candidates are showing voters an inability to govern.”