Washington— As Republicans licked their wounds from the 16-day federal government shutdown standoff, Democrats emerged unified and hoping to take their momentum into the 2014 elections.
Democratic challengers in Michigan say they are responsible alternatives to extreme House Republicans who orchestrated a federal shutdown and took the country to the brink of a fiscal default.
The partial shutdown also appears to have lured one high-profile Democrat, former secretary of state candidate Jocelyn Benson, into considering challenging freshman Republican Rep. Kerry Bentivolio in the 11th Congressional District.
“Every Democrat voted to reopen the government,” said political consultant T.J. Bucholz of Lambert, Edwards & Associates. “ ... I think Democrats will make the case they were throughout the course of this crisis the adults in the room and the time for political shenanigans has long passed.”
But with the 2014 election a year away, Democrats still will have to overcome voters’ short memories, fundraising disadvantages and districts mapped out to favor incumbent Republicans, experts said.
“Certainly the Democrats haven’t been hurt at all by what’s happened in the last couple of weeks in Washington,” said Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “The question is: How big of a plus did they get out of it and how long-lasting is it going to be?”
Ballenger said voters may forget the shutdown by the time they head to the ballot box in November 2014.
The shutdown, which led to the furlough of about 8,700 federal workers in Michigan, shuttered the state’s five national parks and curbed everything from veterans’ services to National Guard training.
National polls found Americans opposed the shutdown are frustrated with just about everybody in Washington. But, they place more of the blame on Republicans.
The shutdown started Oct. 1 when congressional Republicans sought to eliminate funding for President Barack Obama’s health care law as a condition for funding the rest of government and lingered as they pushed for concessions.
The day before a threatened default on U.S. debts the House passed a Senate measure to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling without any changes to the health care law.
Republican Reps. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls, Dave Camp of Midland, Mike Rogers of Howell and Fred Upton of St. Joseph voted yes.
The push to defund Obamacare “was doomed to failure from the very beginning,” said consultant Paul Welday, a former chairman of the Oakland County GOP. He urged Republicans to refocus on economic growth.
Focus on 3 districts
Republicans occupy nine of Michigan’s 14 House seats. For 2014, Democrats are eying three districts to flip — the 1st, 7th and 11th, held by newer incumbents.
Jerry Cannon, a retired Michigan Army National Guard general and former Kalkaska County sheriff, is challenging second-termer Benishek in northern Michigan’s 1st District. Former Michigan House Speaker Pro Tem Pam Byrnes is running against Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in the 7th District.
Bentivolio is facing a well-funded primary challenge from Oakland County lawyer David Trott. Benson, interim law school dean at Wayne State University, is mulling a Democratic campaign.
“I do think people who have tried to maintain this shutdown may pay a hefty price next year in the election,” Bucholz said, arguing Walberg and Benishek are vulnerable against their Democratic challengers, whereas Bentivolio’s greatest threat is from his GOP primary opponent.
Walberg and Bentivolio voted against the deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling because they wanted concessions on Obamacare and reforms on the debt and deficit. Benishek voted yes, saying it’s time to compromise to reopen the government and prevent the country from defaulting.
“I definitely think Rep. Benishek probably stopped the bleeding for himself by voting to end the shutdown,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, which recently surveyed the 1st District.
Still, Walberg and Benishek have several advantages in their re-election bids — the power of incumbency, much more cash in the bank from years of fundraising and favorably drawn districts that tilt three and five points toward the GOP, respectively, according to the Cook Political Report’s partisan voting index.
The Cook Political Report recently tilted two Michigan districts in the Democrats’ direction in the wake of the shutdown, the 7th District, represented by Walberg, and the 3rd District, represented by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, meaning their chances for reelection have been downgraded.
“Both Walberg and Amash are much more conservative than their districts,” said David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based political handicapping outlet. “ ... There’s no question the shutdown inflicted damage to Republicans across the board and in particular to those who made themselves vulnerable by voting against reopening the government.”
Fundraising effects unclear
The shutdown hurt incumbents and may aid Democratic fundraising, experts say. The most recent campaign finance reporting period ended Sept. 30, so the impact of October’s drama on raising money won’t be known for another quarter.
“The political fallout from the confrontation is very real,” wrote Stuart Rothenberg, who handicaps political races in his Washington newsletter. “Republicans got almost nothing out of the deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling except, of course, that they lost another 10 percentage points in their favorable rating and looked less like an organized political party and more like a disorganized, confused rabble.”
Democrats, in turn, have learned when they stay united, they win, said Joe DiSano, a Democratic consultant from Lansing. “I think ... it may have energized the elements of the Obama coalition to show up in 2014. At least that has to be the hope.”
Greg McNeilly, a GOP consultant from Michigan, agrees the party shutdown strategy was ill-advised, but says Republicans have time to safeguard themselves as long as they don’t use the same tactics next year when the budget and debt ceiling again will need congressional approval.
“If they continue to do this all the way up to the election, it will be an issue,” McNeilly said, “and it certainly won’t be a positive outcome for Republicans.”