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The Blame Game Begins

Congress has failed to pass a continuing resolution to keep the U.S. federal government open after its fiscal year ended yesterday, so starting today much of the federal government will shut down, for the 18th time since 1976. In the past, it wasn't such a big deal. Now it has become very polarizing.

The heart of the problem is that a group of House Republicans attached to the continuing resolution provisions to weaken or delay the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA"), which they call "Obamacare." Continuing resolutions are standard practice and have been used for decades without either party attaching its political wish list to them. This time the House Republicans did that and the Senate, where the Democrats currently have 54 seats, removed the wish list and sent it back to the House. The House returned the volley and so did the Senate. Unlike ping pong games, where you have to score 21 times to win, here the clock simply ran out at midnight.

The last time the government shut down was in 1995. The public largely perceived it to be the fault of the Republicans and the shutdown may well have helped Bill Clinton get reelected the next year. The big question in Washington now is who will get the blame for this shutdown. Polling so far has indicated that somewhat more people blame the Republicans than the Democrats, but a shutdown is very abstract to most people until they hit an actual consequence of it. Messaging will be everything now and the Democrats have the advantage because the President can address the nation and tell his side of the story. The Republicans have no one of comparable stature to tell their side of the story. The highest ranking Republican in the country, Speaker John Boehner, didn't want the shutdown and doesn't really believe in it, but is afraid that if he brings a clean continuing resolution to a vote, it will pass with all the Democrats and 20-30 Republicans voting for it. But doing so would enrage the tea partiers in the House and he would be forced to defend his gavel. Of course, he could (and might yet) make a secret deal with minority leader Nancy Pelosi to allow a straight vote in return for the Democrats voting for him for Speaker should he be challenged.

Given that most sensible observers (which does not include all members of Congress) realize that the Democrats are probably going to benefit from the shutdown, why did the House Republicans force the shutdown--against the wishes of both their own leadership and the those of most Senate Republicans? The answer goes back to 2010, when Republicans captured key governors' positions and state legislatures and then proceeded to gerrymander the congressional districts so that most House Republicans are in safe districts. Thus from the point of view of a tea party Republican in a safe district, he or she will be reelected even if the Republicans' national brand suffers and even if the shutdown is going to cost the Republicans the presidency in 2016. Needless to say, this is short term thinking, but that is Congress' specialty.

Also, the Republicans are counting on the general ignorance of the public. Many polls have shown small majorities are against Obamacare (although about 10-15% of the people oppose it from the left, that is, they want a single-payer system like Canada has). However polls have also shown small majorities for the Affordable Care Act, which is the same thing, of course. Even stronger, very large majorities support the actual items in the law, such as prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against sick people or having annual or lifetime limits on payments. In other words, the public is very ill-informed about the law to start with, so each side thinks it can still "educate" people according to its world view.

The effects on the 2014 election are obviously not clear yet, but could change the dynamics. The key Senate races are discussed below but how it will affect each one is hard to say now. It is very unlikely to change, for example, the results in South Dakota, where former governor Mike Rounds (R), is probably already thinking about how to furnish his new Senate office. However in states where there is a real battle, like Alaska, Arkansas, and North Carolina, it will allow the Democrat to run on the slogan "The Republicans are irresponsible children who can't be trusted to govern." This may or may not be true, but a poll released yesterday shows that only one in five independents nationally approve of what the Republicans are doing. If senators Begich, Pryor, and Hagan can each pick up 5% of the vote due to the shutdown, that will probably be enough to keep the Democrats in control of the Senate in 2015. The Republicans are definitely playing with fire, but many of them don't care.

Primaries May Hurt Republicans' Senate Hopes

While 35 Senate seats will be at stake in 2014, only 10 of them are considered competitive. In the other 25 races, the incumbent party is almost certain to hold the seat. Since 8 of the 10 competitive seats are currently held by Democrats, the Republicans' chances of taking over control of the Senate look fairly good on paper, in no small part because many of the key races are taking place in red states. At this moment, Democrats have 54 seats and Republicans have 46 seats, but that is virtually certain to change on Oct. 16, when Newark mayor Cory Booker (D) is expected to win a special election to fill the seat of the late Frank Lautenberg. Assuming Booker wins, the Republicans need a net gain of 6 seats to take control of the Senate. The most likely path for them is to hold their own two competitive seats (Georgia and Kentucky) and win six of the eight Democratic seats.

Since all but one of the eight Democratic seats are in states won by Mitt Romney, winning six of these shouldn't be so hard. However, a complication has arisen in at least five states with competitive races: messy Republican primaries and no primary on the Democratic side. The danger for the Republicans is twofold. First, a nasty primary may leave the winner battered, tired, and broke. Second, candidates in Republican senatorial primaries generally compete by trying to be the furthest to the right. In practice, this generally means opposing all abortions. When some reporter asks: "Should rape victims be forced to carry their rapist's child to term?" the candidates typically start fudging, which leads to Todd Akin situations. (In 2012, the Republican Senate nominee in Missouri, Todd Akin, said that victims of legitimate rape rarely get pregnant, which sunk him.)

Let us now examine all 10 competitive races, starting with the ones featuring ideological Republican primaries and no Democratic primary (in alphabetical order by state).

Alaska. In 2008, Sen. Mark Begich defeated then-senator Ted Stevens by fewer than 4,000 votes, even though Stevens had just been convicted of seven felonies (later overturned). Many observers felt that if Begich could barely beat a convicted felon, he was going to be dead meat in 2014 when he would presumably face someone with a cleaner record. However, he may have lucked out. Two establishment Republicans, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R-AK), and Commissioner of Natural Resources, Dan Sullivan, have both entered the race. To Begich's great delight, Joe Miller, a tea party favorite who won the 2012 Republican senatorial primary (only to be defeated by a write-in candidate, Lisa Murkowski) is running again. A possible--in fact, likely--outcome next year is that Treadwell and Sullivan split the establishment vote letting Miller win the primary. Miller is a real bomb thrower and polls show Begich beating him by 20 points. If the tea party manages to hand Miller the nomination again, it will be well nigh impossible for the Republicans to capture the Senate, as this is a must-win seat.

Georgia. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) is retiring, so this is an open seat election. By all rights, a Republican should win easily in red Georgia. However, a vicious primary is developing, pitting three very conservative congressmen against Karen Handel, the former Georgia Secretary of State. All of them are firebrands who have frequently said things that warm the cockles of tea party hearts but could cause trouble in the general election. The Democrats don't have to worry about a primary. Their candidate is Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former (and legendary) Democratic senator Sam Nunn. Michelle is going to run as the reincarnation of her popular and conservative father. While the Republican is favored due to the redness of the state, a bloody Republican primary that produces a badly flawed candidate could make this a surprisingly close race.

Iowa. Like Georgia, Iowa is going to be a free-for-all for an open seat, with six candidates already in the race and several more in the wings who might yet enter. None of them are especially well known, meaning each one will have to spend every penny he or she has in the primary. To make things worse, if no candidate gets 35% of the primary vote, the Iowa Republican Party will hold a convention on July 12 to nominate the candidate. Conventions tend to be attended by true-blue activists, which means that the candidate furthest to the right is likely to win at a convention, irrespective of the primary results. A convention would probably not nominate state senator Joni Ernst, the only woman in the mix and the person least far right, that is, the strongest general election candidate. The Democrats long ago settled on Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA), who may have a clear field until next July to define himself and raise money for the general election. Iowa went for Obama by 6 points in 2012 and has been trending Democratic, so Braley would have been the favorite here even without a mudfight on the other side. Also, Braley won't be haunted by the Democratic nemesis on 2014: low turnout among minorities, because there aren't any minorities in Iowa. The 2014 electorate will probably look similar to the 2012 electorate.

Kentucky. Unlike the states where brawls are going to happen, Kentucky Republicans face a simple choice: vote for the Senate minority leader, Sen, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) or vote for a tea party candidate who despises him and everything he stands for, businessman Matt Bevin. McConnell has been in the Senate for 28 years and Bevin is blaming everything that is wrong with the country on him. For a newcomer to politics to take down a party leader, especially one as canny and well financed as McConnell would be unprecedented, but tea partiers are going to give Bevin their best shot, in no small part because they hate McConnnell as much as they hate the Democrats. Here, too, the Democrats have already settled on a candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes. Although Romney carried Kentucky by 22 points, six of the seven statewide elected officers in Kentucky are Democrats. Only the Agriculture Commissioner is a Republican, so a Democrat winning statewide is actually fairly common. Oddly enough, Grimes would probably do better against McConnell, who is not popular at all in his own state, than against Bevin, so Democrats are hoping that McConnell will emerge from the primary as the winner, but battered and bruised. All in all, the Republicans are more likely than not to hold the seat.

North Carolina. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) is certainly vulnerable this cycle, but she is likely to get a helping hand from the Republicans. The best-known officially announced candidate so far is state house Speaker Thom Tillis, who is the establishment favorite. However, a recent poll shows that only 12% of the voters want him as their senator. Two other candidates, who are even less popular, are also in the race. It is expected that a Charlotte pastor, Mark Harris, is going to jump into the race tomorrow, and many others are waiting in the wings. A brutal many-way race is probably not the best way to knock off a sitting senator. Although Obama won the state in 2008 and lost it in 2012, Hagan may have a problem with the electorate. North Carolina has many minority voters, nearly all of whom are Democrats. If they fail to show up at the polls in Nov. 2014, she could go down to defeat. Again, a lot depends on how bloody the Republican primary is. Hagan has no opposition, so she is already concentrating on raising money for the general election.

Now let us look briefly at the other five competitive states, which do not feature a Republican food fight and a single Democratic candidate.

Arkansas. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) is up for reelection and is going to have to fight for his political life against Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Pryor is going to put as much distance as he can between himself and Obama, who is not popular in the state. Pryor can make a claim to being "just plain folks" since he has two degrees from the University of Arkansas, in contrast to Cotton's two degrees from Harvard. Nevertheless, since Arkansas is getter redder by the year, Cotton is probably a slight favorite unless he stumbles.

Louisiana. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is running for a fourth term in a deep red state. Up until now, she has managed to win her elections, but each one is a struggle. She is likely to face Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). One fact that could play a role here is Cassidy's 2002 contribution to her campaign that year. If she is such an awful senator, why did he try to help her get re-elected? The race is probably a tossup at this point.

Montana. With the retirement of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), the Democrats have an open seat to defend in a red state. Former governor Brian Schweitzer (D) would have been the obvious candidate, but he declined the race, saying he wouldn't want to work in a place (the Senate) where you can't take your dog. As a consequence, the Democrats don't have a candidate yet, but neither do the Republicans, although all eyes are on Rep. Steve Daines (R-MT). So basically, the race is not very clear yet, but a generic Republican could probably beat a generic Democrat in this red state.

South Dakota. This is the state most likely to flip since Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) decided to retire after his term is over. The Republicans have lined up popular former governor Mike Rounds. The Democratic candidate is Rick Weiland, a former advisor to then-majority leader Tom Daschle. It would take something like a buffalo stampede to stop Rounds.

West Virginia. The retirement of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is giving the Democrats a serious headache. Rockefeller kept getting elected and elected due to his personal popularity and his deep pockets. Without him, they have a problem. After twisting her arm for a while, the DSCC did manage to convince Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to run. The Republican candidate is probably Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former governor (and felon) Arch Moore. A tea party candidate, Pat McGeehan has announced he is also running, but it is too early to tell how serious this challenge to Capito is.

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---The Votemaster
Sep19 Natalie Tennant To Run for Senate in West Virginia
Aug20 Ted Cruz Releases His Birth Certificate
Aug20 Lamar Alexander May Get Primary Challenger
Aug14 Booker on Track to Become Senator from New Jersey
Aug07 Kentucky and National Politics Get Intertwined
Jul23 Michelle Nunn Pre-Announces Senate Candidacy
Jul23 Liz Cheney to Challenge Sen. Enzi in Wyoming
Jul14 Schweitzer Won't Run for Baucus' Senate Seat
Jul14 Prospective Senate Candidate Sarah Palin Has Never Talked to State Republican Chairman
Jun26 Markey Holds Massachusetts Senate Seat for the Democrats
Jun26 Supreme Court Guts the Voting Right Act
Jun26 Is Ted Cruz Eligible to Be President?
Jun19 McConnell Threatens to Go Nuclear All the Time If He Becomes Majority Leader
Jun04 Lautenberg Dies, Christie on the Spot
Jun04 Rep. Carolyn McCarthy Has Lung Cancer
Jun04 Lautenberg Dies, Christie on the Spot
Jun02 Hagan Gets First Serious Republican Challenger
May19 Virginia Republicans Nominate Ken Cuccinelli for Governor
May19 Karen Handel Joins the Fray in Georgia
May04 Republicans Can't Find Senate Candidate in Iowa
Apr24 Sen. Baucus to Retire
Mar30 Republicans Gear Up for a Battle--with Themselves
Mar27 Sen. Tim Johnson Will Retire
Mar19 Head of the Republican Party Excoriates the Republican Party
Mar01 Latham Declines to Run for Harkin's Senate Seat in Iowa
Feb15 Democrats Avoid Bruising Senatorial Primary in New Jersey
Feb08 Braley Starts Running for Harkin's Seat
Feb02 Scott Brown Will Not Run in Masssachusetts Special Election
Jan27 Tom Harkin to Retire in 2015
Jan27 Rick Hasen: Republicans Won't Gerrymander the Electoral College
Jan27 Poll: Brown Leads Markey by 20 Points in Massachusetts Special Election
Jan26 Saxby Chambliss Won't Seek Reelection
Jan25 Republican-Controlled Blue States Considering Electoral-College Changes
Jan25 Are Robopollsters Cheating?
Jan22 Biden Inaugurated as Vice President Again
Jan22 Virginia Republicans Redistrict While Civil Rights Leader Attends Inauguration
Jan14 New Front Page for 2013-2014
Jan14 Seats Most Likely to Flip
Jan11 Sen. Jay Rockefeller Will Not Run for Reelection in 2014
Dec20 Senate Races 2014 - Part 2
Nov30 Senate Races 2014
Nov23 How Well Did the Pollsters Do?
Nov23 The Season's Almost Over
Nov22 Happy Thanksgiving
Nov21 Iowa Governor Wants to Kill the Ames Straw Poll
Nov21 Jim Messina Tells How Obama Won
Nov21 Massachusetts Democrats Panicking over a Special Election
Nov20 Conservative Republicans Fight Back
Nov20 Saxby Chambliss May Face a Primary Challenge
Nov20 West Tosses in the Towel