Politics 2014: October 2013 helps shape message for November 2014

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |  Oct. 27, 2013 at 3:30 AM
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The U.S. government shutdown, immigration reform, budget woes, problems with the Affordable Care Act online enrollment created a whirlpool of controversy and contretemps for Washington and provided blood-stirring language for the 2014 midterm elections and beyond.

Poll after poll after poll released after the federal government partially closed because the money ran out were variations on a theme: Republicans took a hit. A big hit.

President Obama and Democrats didn't come through unscathed, but definitely not as tarnished as Republicans in the budget confrontation.

Obama, however, took it on the chin with the less-than-smooth rollout of healthcare.gov, the site for Americans looking for and enrolling in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

The site went up on the same day the government shut down, so Obama's pain didn't begin until it became the only political game in town two weeks later.

When the House and Senate -- despite pleas from Tea Party-backed Republicans -- overwhelmingly passed a bill that both temporarily funded government and pushed out the nation's borrowing authority, the fingers began pointing.

Obama is racing to try to debug the website. Republicans, however, are still finger-pointing and haven't really done anything to tamp down the battle royale fomenting between the establishment and Tea Party wings.

While the midterm elections are little more than a year away, some observers say what happened this month won't affect an outcome in the 2014 elections. Others, however, aren't so sure.

Seven Senate seats now held by Republicans could be worrisome for the incumbents in the party primaries, Roll Call reported last week.

It's still too early to know how competitive many of the challengers -- former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Liz Cheney challenging Michael Enzi in Wyoming, conservative Louisville, Ky., businessman Matt Bevin taking on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and state Sen. Chris McDaniel's run against Thad Cochran in Mississippi -- but the ride could be bumpy and expensive.

A primary defeat of any of a group of pragmatic Republicans -- which includes McConnell, Enzi and Cochran (if he decides to seek re-election next year) -- would further embolden the Tea Party movement in 2016 and further rend the GOP, non-partisan political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg said in a Roll Call commentary.

Those who consider compromise capitulation say they're trying to run the most conservative candidates in the reddest of states. But they have a blind spot, namely holding on to Republican-held seats in purple or bluish states.

The de facto congressional leader of the Tea Party movement, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, led a drive to defund Obamacare as a condition of funding the government and House conservatives followed his lead, despite grumblings from moderates. Their fight fizzled and they came away from the deal that reopened the federal government with nothing except a damaged party brand.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the effort to defund Obamacare in the run-up to the government shutdown "a political gift" to Obama and the Democrats while urging lawmakers who backed the quixotic move to "do some soul-searching."

"I think we've learned that this was a political gift to the president by the Republican Party at a time when he needed it most," Graham recently on CBS's "Face the Nation." "The tactic of defunding the government unless he repealed his signature issue was as poorly designed as Obamacare itself, almost."

Graham, seen by the most conservative faction as a primary target, also chided Cruz, saying "the tactical choice that he embraced hurt our party."

He urged House Republicans to heed Speaker John Boehner, who has indicated he would change his strategy ahead of the next fiscal fight early next year.

"We've got a unique opportunity here after this debacle called the shutdown to re-energize the Congress and maybe get an understanding" on long-term budget issues, Graham said.

At the opposite end of the GOP spectrum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was dropping his appeal of a lower court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the Garden State, acknowledging that case was all but and his administration wouldn't pursue a losing cause in the state Supreme Court.

The decision by Christie, considered a possible contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, also points up a huge contrast in governing philosophies between himself and Cruz, also reportedly considering a presidential run.

The Washington Post notes Christie's allowing for the legalization of same-sex marriage -- something 59 percent of all Republicans opposed in a March Post-ABC News poll -- demonstrates he recognized the realities of an unwinnable situation, something likely to make more rigid Republicans grit their teeth.

Should Christie run in 2016, his decision to drop his appeal opens the social-issues debate and discussions about broader governing philosophies.

Cruz readily admits he didn't move to the Senate from the House to make friends and he isn't planning on backing any of his colleagues in primaries -- a position that, on its face, runs counter to his post as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is dedicated to re-electing incumbents.

Another conservative up-and-comer, Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio, isn't shunning the establishment. He's a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that crafted a bipartisan, sweeping immigration reform bill that passed the Senate and awaits action in the House. Obama has called on Congress to take up immigration reform now that the budget confrontations have been temporarily laid to rest.

Insiders told Roll Call they're skeptical the splintered Republican caucus can get something done on immigration reform any time soon.

Sources familiar with the thinking of Republican leaders and the unruly conservatives who clash with them are pessimistic about the party's ability to unite, even though immigration reform enjoys popular support within the party and voters overall.

"I would ask these immigration proponents, 'Does our party look like it's doing a good job of actively managing our favorables?'" one GOP aide said. "Does the [Republican National Committee] want us to do something? Sure it does, to give them talking points headed into 2016, making the party look like it's more reasonable and in tune with demographics a Republican presidential candidate might need. Is that something that's actually viable in the House? No. It's not."

Another Republican aide told Roll Call, "There is no chance the House brings anything to a vote. I'm pretty confident you don't have anyone in Republican leadership in the House telling you it would be good to vote on it. Just not going to happen, no matter how much [Obama] wants to change the debate to that issue."

Senate Democrats emerged from the government shutdown more confident about retaining control of the upper chamber next year-- with some polls indicating Democrats could pick up a seat or two held by Republicans, The Hill reported.

That optimism is tempered by concerns the botched rollout of Obamacare could muck up the electoral horizon and negate gains Democrats made during the government shutdown at the expense of the GOP.

"They certainly made the road to a Senate majority much more difficult," GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said of Republicans who embraced the shutdown strategy.

If Obamacare ends up clearly hurting consumers, Republicans could argue their reasoning for shutting down the government was sound, said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the Cook Report.

"As we have witnessed, the attention span of the average voter is pretty short," Duffy told The Hill. "We're in wait-and-see mode."

A Democratic super PAC glommed onto the shutdown, flooding the Tallahassee, Fla., airwaves last week with an ad attacking Rep. Steve Southerland II, criticizing him for voting against the bill that ended the government shutdown.

Asked by Roll Call if the super PAC planned to expand this line of advertising against other House Republicans, spokesman Andy Stone said there were no immediate plans, "but without question it'll be an issue in future paid communications against vulnerable Republicans."

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