Politics 2014: Timing is everything

Feb. 16, 2014 at 6:01 AM
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The huge schism among elements of the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives -- and how it plays out the midterm elections -- was on display last week as the lower chamber lurched toward approving raising the $17 trillion debt limit so the United States wouldn't go into default.

Republicans tried to develop a strategy to include debt reduction measures several times and failed, instead passing a no-strings-attached bill that the Senate passed -- not without its own drama -- and shipped to President Obama for action.

In discussing the possibility of an immigration bill passing this year, House members have said the matter is on the back burner so long as they have a trust issue with President Obama, whom they say they can't trust to enforce the laws on the book.

That argument, however, likely masks deeper concerns. Political observer Charlie Cook says Republicans don't want to be painted as supporting amnesty for undocumented workers already in the country by potential challengers to the right this year or sometime in the future.

But dig a little deeper, Cook says, and there's another issue that becomes a factor: the primary calendar, or more specifically, filing deadlines. Right now seven states have passed their candidate filing deadlines and two more have deadlines before the end of February. Nineteen states have filing deadlines in March, followed by five each in April and May, nine in June, one in July and the last in August. As more months slip by, more incumbents have escaped a primary challenge.

NBC News points out more than 60 percent of the House GOP membership represent districts in which Latinos make up less than 10 percent of the population. Couple that with the reality that Republicans don't really face serious Democratic opposition in 80 percent of the districts with more than 10 percent of Latinos, means their biggest threat to re-election comes from an ugly party primary.

"[House] Republicans don't have to worry about the Latino electorate," Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior fellow at the University of Southern California, told NBC News. "They don't have to listen to them very much."

"In states that do their own redistricting, they have been very careful about making sure their incumbents are not vulnerable to the Hispanic vote," political analyst Cal Jillson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, told NBC News.

But an Achilles heel for former tough-on-immigration Republicans came in 2010 when congressional maps were redrawn. While congressional districts were recalculated to insulate their incumbent, some, for whatever reason, weren't.

Witness the altered stance of GOP Rep. Peter King of New York, who has long sought a declaration that English is the country's official language and has advocated for the end of bilingual programs when he represented a predominantly white, mostly financially comfortable district on Long Island. After redistricting, he represents a more politically competitive and diverse population, including Latino residents who make up 22 percent of his district.

Since 2010, King has been more open to a pathway to citizenship proposal sought by Democrats

Representatives such as Minnesota's John Kline are in a tough spot trying to appease the conservative base that typically turns out for primaries while staking a more moderate position in the general election to satisfy pro-immigrant voting bloc.

"If it's a tight enough race and every vote counts, Latinos could be the winning margin [in Kline's election]," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political analyst at the University of Minnesota. "You question whether Kline even really wants to do this anymore when people back in your district are unhappy with you [over either position]."

Democrats have acknowledged they aren't likely to reclaim the House despite the turmoil churning within the GOP.

In fact, the most likely scenario would be for them to cheer the unrest on because leadership of the chamber is for the Republicans to lose, the Washington Post said.

"Democrats can't really hope to win the House, but Republicans could conceivably do something to lose it," said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "In order for Democrats to have an opening this November, Republicans would need to pursue a self-destructive strategy similar to the one we saw last October" when the government partially closed because Republicans tied the budget to defunding the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats need to pick up 17 seats in November to win back the majority, but political forecasting and historical trends suggest that they will lose instead of gain. Post-World War II, the party of a president in his sixth year averages a loss of 29 House seats, Wasserman said.

That history didn't stop House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer from predicting that GOP divisiveness and his party's gaudy fundraising totals "give me great optimism that we're going to win back the House."

(The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paced the National Republican Congressional Committee, $5.6 million to $4.2 million, in the fourth quarter of 2013, and had a cash-on-hand advantage at the start of this year.)

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