If there’s any debate left over whether a government shutdown is bad news for Republicans, listen to the guys stepping into tough races.
Presidential hopefuls and Republicans in close 2014 races are singing a very different tune than many of their colleagues – if they’re singing anything at all.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky pleaded for a short term deal Saturday.
Sen. Marco Rubio has dodged.
And Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell -- the only Republican who voted against John Boehner’s first stop-gap spending bill – is pleading with his colleagues to cave and reopen the government. “Republicans had fought the good fight,” he said in a statement. But it’s time.
Many Republicans know what a shutdown can do to election prospects, considering that the last time the government closed under a Republican-controlled Congress in 1996, Newt Gingrich saw his army shrink by nine soldiers.
Now many strategists are privately beginning to fear that the long odds faced by Democrats in the House in 2014 are getting a lot shorter.
Thanks to the disastrous 2010 midterms, where the GOP gained 63 seats and won back control of the House, Republicans had control of the decennial redistricting process in many critical states, and the GOP had, and maintained, an advantage going into 2012, even though they lost eight seats.
Democrats knew they needed some seismic event to shift the playing field in their favor, where it was a very steep climb to get the 17 seats they need for a majority.
But Democrats now think this could be their silver bullet, and the most tangible evidence yet of a broken Congress and belief that blame will continue to land on the GOP’s shoulders. Already Tuesday morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had launched robocalls against 63 House Republicans, and believe this showdown can help them with recruitment and putting crucial GOP-held seats in play even as they're saddled with a smaller playing field.
“This is a great first step to building the narrative and showing real life consequences to voters next fall for why Republicans aren’t up to the job,” said Democratic strategist Travis Lowe, who directed the Democratic Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure program during 2012.
“Every time Republicans in Congress choose dysfunction and chaos that hurts the middle class, voters look for a change,” said DCCC spokeswoman Emily Bittner.
Ali Lapp, the director of Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC, says in many of the swing districts they’ve long been targeting as an outside group, independents especially place the blame for the gridlock on the GOP.
“There’s no question that swing voters out there think the major impediment of progress is the House Republicans,” said Lapp. “They have a knee jerk reaction to anything the president wants to do.”
The ones that are beginning to voice frustration, like Rigell, are just the ones Democrats are looking to target in 2014. Rigell’s Virginia Beach district, heavily dependent on government and military workers, narrowly voted for Obama in 2012, and he faces a challenge from retired Navy commander Suzanne Patrick, a former Bush appointee.
According to the Washington Post’s latest whip count, the number of Republicans who now back a clean CR has risen to 15, with one-third sitting in districts President Obama won in 2012. Several of them are potential top targets for Democrats from key urban and suburban areas, including Michael Grimm of New York and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
The statistics and poll numbers alone show good reasons why many Republicans are beginning to waffle. The morning after the stalemate was made official, the news wasn’t good for the GOP. A Quinnipiac University poll showed voters opposed the a shutdown as a means to block implementation of Obamacare by a three-to-one margin. Though a narrow 47% plurality remain opposed to the law-- whose health care exchanges opened Tuesday despite the shutdown -- voters are still heavily opposed to using it as a bargaining chip over government funding, 58%-34%.
Even among the GOP base, the support is slipping-- Republicans support forcing the shutdown by only a 49%-44% margin, but among Democrats the opposition is nearly united, and 74% of independents oppose it.
But perhaps the best news for Democrats -- a huge uptick on the generic ballot, where they now lead Republicans by nine points, 43%-34%, their largest measure so far this cycle and close to the double-digit number that’s historically been a predictor of electoral waves and success.
Republicans continue to see opposition to the president’s health care plan -- which propelled them into office on the 2010 wave -- as another winning message, especially in a midterm year where they should pick up seats. But the last time a major shutdown occurred 17 years ago, they had optimism too. Buoyed by the 1994 Republican Revolution and new Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans challenged Democratic President Bill Clinton over a balanced budget with lower deficits.
Even though Republicans were far more united then in their demand and also controlled both the House and the Senate, the shutdown didn’t end well for them. After three weeks, they essentially caved and reopened the government on January 6, 1996. They did eventually get a balanced budget plan from the president, but the 1996 and especially 1998 elections weren’t good for the GOP. In 1996, Clinton rolled to re-election but in Congress it was a mixed bag -- Republicans lost a total of nine seats but actually picked up two in the Senate, keeping control of both chambers. But in 1998, still haunted by the shutdown and Clinton’s impeachment, they lost five more seats in the House, and Gingrich was ousted in a coup.
The House then was also a very different geographical creature during the 1990s, though. Now, partisan gerrymandering has only solidified more polarized, safer districts. Many Republicans aren’t worried about re-election as much as they are a primary challenge, with powerful groups like the Club for Growth promising consequences if they vote for any bill that includes Obamacare funding.
According to the non-partisan Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, in 2000, House Republicans represented a narrow majority of urban dwellers, and nearly 63% of all rural Americans. Now, despite their majority they represents just 48% of urban America and 77% of rural America. In 1995, 79 of the 236 House Republicans sat in districts Clinton had won in 1992 -- but in today’s gerrymandered districts, just 17 Republicans sit in districts Obama won in 1992. Few also remember those tense 21 days either and their repercussions either -- only 37 House Republicans were around for the 1995/1996 shutdown.
But while Democrats point to the shutdown as the latest, and most transparent, evidence of the deep fissure within the House GOP, it’s far too early to tell whether it’s a lasting campaign issue with repercussions 13 months from now or another shiny object that voters will have forgotten about.
Wasserman noted other controversies, including the IRS and NSA scandals this spring, were supposed to be outsized issues with implications for both party, this latest debacle “has much more potential to make Republicans in the House look exclusively bad.”
“The problem here for Democrats is if this issue is resolved in some orderly fashion soon, can they parlay it into a permanent 2014 campaign issue?” said Wasserman.
Republicans privately remain frustrated with the way the Obamacare issue isn’t resonating as it used to, even with public polling showing the bill, at large, remains unpopular and worrisome for many Americans.
Even ahead of the shutdown, the GOP was pointing to a Republican poll of 18 House districts that showed Obamacare was still unpopular. But when the showdown was presented as battle between passing a clean funding bill or negotiating over health care, Republicans still narrowly trailed Democrats in crucial House swing districts next fall -- the type of districts that will be the crux of the 2014 playing field.
But Republicans have countered on the shutdown with their own messaging. On Wednesday, they released radio ads targeting their own crop of Democrats who sit in swing districts, hitting them over protecting lawmaker health care subsidies to purchase coverage.
“Instead of living by the same rules as everyone else, members of Congress receive special subsidies to pay for their healthcare,” says one ad targeting Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, whose Arizona district voted for Romney.
“I think our cleanest message we may have stepped on a little bit, but hopefully we can bring it out more, is pushing the individual mandate back,” said Guy Harrison, who was the National Republican Congressional Committee’s executive director during both the 2010 and 2012 cycles. “All the arguments are on our side.”
But, Harrison cautioned, both sides have to be careful.
“It’s a highwire act from here on out to see which side can overplay their hand,” Harrison cautioned, though.
Other Republicans also warned that it’s not even the halfway point to the midterms.
“13 months is a long time in American politics and it’s going to seem even longer for House Democrats who will be spending that time defending ObamaCare’s broken promises,” said NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.
But with a debt ceiling fight looming and other spending bills to face off before the year ends, Democrats also argue that for Republicans, the worst may be yet to come.
“While I don’t think we should be spiking the football today, the more they keep doing this, and I’m pretty confident they will, the better and better things are going to look for us,” said Lowe.