Republicans are taking a big political risk if the government shutdown persists.
Polls are emphatic – people hate this shutdown. They blame Republicans more than Democrats. And Republicans remain divided about how to proceed, a schism that’s already triggered some ugly partisan primary fights.
Republicans still have some important advantages, enough so that analysts predict they’ll hold onto their House of Representatives majority and have a decent shot to control the Senate. But those forecasts could change if the partial closings that began Tuesday drag on.
For now, damage to Republicans is cushioned by the protection incumbents enjoy, thanks to a political system rigged to protect them. Congressional districts are carefully drawn for the benefit of current officeholders, and in recent years, Republicans have been in charge of drawing a lot of them. Incumbents also prosper from an ability to amass huge campaign treasuries, thus scaring off their potentially strongest challengers.
What threatens Republicans most is that party split over how to manage this drama. While Republicans are unified in their disdain for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, they disagree sharply on strategy.
One group, generally conservatives backed by tea party activists, continues to want any move to keep the government open contingent on a delay or dilution of Obamacare. The other, usually veteran lawmakers or those from swing districts, would rather debate the issue at another time and keep the government open.
Party members Tuesday tried to emphasize how the opposition to Obamacare has emerged as a unifier for a party that badly needs one.
“Any disagreement is about tactics. It’s not really a split,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, who is close to Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
But scratch the surface and the crevice appears.
“We are in a fight taking all the oxygen out of the room when we should be focusing on the unraveling of Obamacare, which is taking place,” protested Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Republicans have no consensus on a logical endgame, and that bothers McCain and his allies. In the House, that faction quietly tried Monday night to mount a rebellion, hoping to derail the effort to tie changes in Obamacare to government funding. It went nowhere.
The practical coalition remains concerned about the party brand. They’re well aware Obama has the bully pulpit. If he makes a shutdown statement, as he did Tuesday, cable news channels instantly interrupt programming to air his remarks. Republicans don’t command that kind of attention.
Adding to the conciliatory wing’s woes is that the Republican right is feeling unusually muscular. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., was asked how he justified a shutdown when polls showed that people dislike it.
“I think we’re principled. That’s what we’re looking at,” he said. “Far too often people see Republicans unwilling to stand. Republicans are consistent now.”
Backing him is a vocal echo chamber of tea party conservatives and like-minded groups. “Senate Democrats delivered a triple-whammy: shutting down government, bringing chaos and uncertainty to health care which affects American lives, and sticking American families with massive cost increases due to Obamacare – which most Americans don’t want,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the Tea Party Patriots’ national coordinator.
She’s partly right. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed Americans split over Obamacare. But it also had a more emphatic finding: By more than 3-to-1, Americans oppose shutting down the government as a way of blocking implementation of the new health care law.
“Americans are certainly not in love with Obamacare, but they reject decisively the claim by congressional Republicans that it is so bad that it’s worth closing down the government to stop it,” said Peter Brown, the Quinnipiac polling institute’s assistant director.
Both political parties Tuesday claimed the shutdown will give them momentum heading into the 2014 congressional campaigns. Both parties were already out Tuesday with ads and statements charging opponents with being irresponsible.
“Ami Bera Voted Against Repealing Obamacare. Ami Bera Voted Against Delaying Obamacare,” declared a National Republican Congressional Committee press release. The California Democratic freshman is considered one of the more vulnerable House of Representatives members; the NRCC has sent out similar statements targeting other Democrats.
Democrats launched their own initiative. Starting Tuesday, the party is directing automated phone calls to the districts of 63 vulnerable Republicans. “While you were sleeping, Congressman (fill in name) shut down the government. You heard that right,” the caller says.
Republicans have one big advantage. They were in the right places at the right time. “They had a timely wave in 2010,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which studies congressional races at the University of Virginia. Republicans that year won a House majority and did well in gubernatorial and state legislative races, allowing the party to control the congressional redistricting in many states.
Lines were drawn so that even in some states Obama won last year, Republican House members were able to survive. Obama won Pennsylvania and Ohio, yet Pennsylvania has 13 House Republicans and five Democrats, while Ohio has 12 Republicans and four Democrats.
Whether Republicans can grow those numbers remains uncertain. Party officials worry the party is often seen as intransigent, even intolerant. The party’s 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, won 7 percent of the black vote and 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Two Senate candidates lost winnable seats because of what were seen as insensitive comments about rape.
If the shutdown keeps going, and Obama keeps railing against Republican stubbornness, the political prediction map could change.
“It’s not likely now,” said Skelley, “but it could depend on how big a mess this becomes.”