Election prospects put a spring in the step of Senate Democrats
By Alexandra Jaffe - 10/22/13 05:58 AM ET
Senate Democrats have emerged from the government shutdown more confident about holding control of the upper chamber in 2014 — with some polls fueling hopes the party could pick up a seat or two currently held by the GOP.
The sentiment marks a shift in attitude even from this summer, when partisans on both sides viewed control of the Senate as a toss-up.
The optimism is being tempered by concerns that a botched rollout of ObamaCare could cloud the electoral horizon and nullify shutdown gains made at the expense of the GOP.
But polls showing voters primarily blamed Republicans for the crisis have even GOP strategists acknowledging that the prospects of a Senate takeover have dimmed.
“They certainly made the road to a Senate majority much more difficult,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, referring to congressional Republicans who embraced the shutdown strategy.
Democrats hold 55 Senate seats; the GOP needs to pick up six seats to regain the majority.
Their path wends through four Democratic-held red states, three seats held by retiring Democrats in states Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential election and a handful of more difficult blue-leaning swing states with retiring Democratic incumbents.
Democratic polling shows three of the party’s four most vulnerable incumbents — Sens. Mary Landrieu, in Louisiana, Mark Pryor, in Arkansas, and Kay Hagan, in North Carolina — holding small but promising leads over their Republican opponents.
All four red-state Democrats, including Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), posted strong third-quarter fundraising totals and remain well ahead of their opponents in cash on hand.
In Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has led Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in four recent polls.
In Georgia, polling from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling shows Democrat Michelle Nunn tying a generic Republican with 42 percent support each.
Democratic-held Senate seats in West Virginia and South Dakota still look favorable to the GOP.
But Democrats says there is reason to relax somewhat — and even rejoice — because they feel the shutdown has reshuffled the political playing deck for 2014.
“The shutdown hurt millions of people across the country, cost our economy billions, and tanked the Republican Party with voters. All in all, it was a stupid and reckless ploy,” said Ty Matsdorf, spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, a top super-PAC working to elect Democrats to the Senate.
O’Connell said the shutdown fundamentally undermined the GOP’s message for 2014.
“The argument the GOP is making is that you have to put us back in charge of governance,” he says. “And I’m sure as the dust settles, there are going to be independents scratching their heads on that one.”
In Louisiana, which Democrats hope to defend, and Georgia, which they hope to flip, the shutdown could strengthen Democratic hands.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, the front-runner for the GOP nomination in Louisiana, is facing a conservative primary challenge and voted against the deal to end the shutdown.
According to polling from PPP, Landrieu leads Cassidy by 7 points. Her lead expands to 10 points when voters are told that Cassidy supported the shutdown.
A campaign adviser to Landrieu said the shutdown outcome plays into the senator’s campaign narrative.
“Landrieu has a record of getting things done, and if the frustration with Washington is nothing’s working — do we really want to send someone like Cassidy to Washington?” says the adviser.
In Georgia, all three of the sitting congressmen running for Senate — Reps. Jack Kingston, Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun — voted “no” on the deal.
Democratic polling showed Nunn opening a 6-point lead on a generic Republican when voters are told the GOP members supported the shutdown.
The impact of the shutdown on many other races is less clear.
But GOP votes in favor of the deal to end the shutdown suggest concerns about its impact on Republican chances.
Rep. Tom Cotton, who is running against Pryor in Arkansas, voted in favor of the compromise.
The last five polls give Pryor a slight lead over Cotton. PPP’s most recent survey also indicated a plurality of voters were less likely to support Cotton after finding out he initially supported the shutdown.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the PPP polls are a “sham” because the firm used “little tricks-o-the-trade” — like asking about a generic GOP candidate — “to skew the data to fit the narrative” of Democratic strength.
Shutdown politics are less likely to play in Alaska and North Carolina, where none of the Republican challengers are in Congress.
The biggest unknown for Democrats is how the shutdown will play in Kentucky, where Lundergan Grimes is challenging McConnell, who brokered the deal to reopen government.
A recent Democratic poll showed Kentuckians overwhelmingly disapproving of the shutdown. Lundergan Grimes led by 2 points.
While McConnell’s role in brokering a deal to end the shutdown likely won favor with some centrists, it incensed the Tea Party.
The Senate Conservatives Fund has endorsed the Senate minority leader’s primary opponent, Matt Bevin.
O’Connell says the shutdown likely hurt the GOP with independent voters in states like Iowa and Michigan, where Senate retirements have given Republicans reason to play in blue-leaning swing states. He noted that Republicans might have lost an opportunity to drain Democratic resources.
“You’ve got to be able to keep as many options open as possible. If you can’t, then Democrats start moving resources around. In Iowa, Michigan — you have to have them spending money there, because that’s money they’re not spending in Arkansas,” he said, referring to the GOP’s top pickup opportunity for the cycle.
But Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the Cook Report, noted other issues — like a botched rollout of ObamaCare exchanges — could play an outsized role in 2014 as well.
If ObamaCare ends up clearly hurting consumers, she said, Republicans could argue that their reasoning for shutting down the government was sound.
“As we have witnessed, the attention span of the average voter is pretty short,” Duffy said.
“We’re in wait-and-see mode,” she added.