Thursday, October 17, 2013

Steve Daines, the Shutdown, and What it Means for The Montana Senate Race—if Anything….

I recently wrote in a magazine piece that the Democrats should, just by looking at historical trends, have a bad year in the midterm elections (see the piece here). One take away message from the two week plus government shut down is that the Republican Party was hurt tremendously in the eyes of the public. According to a recent WSJ-NBC News poll, only 24 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Republican Party and by a 22 point margin put more of the blame for the shutdown on the Republican Party as opposed to President Obama.

Democrats might gloat over all of this, but I agree with other assessments that the voting public is not only notoriously fickle, they are quite forgetful. Republicans can certainly hope with some degree of confidence that by the midterms come along in November, the debt crisis will be a distant memory in the minds of voters.

But the Democrats won something else when they reopened government and lifted the debt ceiling: They planted the seeds for more histrionics when voters will be paying closer attention. As the result of the agreement made in the Senate, the federal government is reopened for about 90 days—and the new debt ceiling will be breached in February 2014. Again, House Republicans will be placed between a rock and a hard place this winter: Should they again attempt to use the debt ceiling to again demand more cuts in spending and changes in the Affordable Care Act? If they don’t make good on their promises to their base—who want these cuts and want to rollback ACA—they risk demoralizing that base going into a crucial midterm election where they stand to make serious gains in the Senate. 

If Republicans do not use this opportunity to pursue these goals, establishment Republicans risk more primary challenges that could, in low turnout elections, produce Republican nominees so far to the right of center that they cannot hope to win a general election campaign against a centrist Democrat. Republicans probably lost five solid pick up opportunities in the Senate over the past two cycles because their nominees were too extreme relative to general electorate (Delaware, Colorado, Nevada, Indiana, and Missouri). Senators Cochran, Alexander, Graham, and McConnell all voted for the debt limit and shutdown deal and all have drawn Tea Party challengers who could exploit their votes.  Conversely, if the House Republicans do shut down government again, they also risk the party’s standing among the electorate and boost the election prospects of Democrats during an election cycle where they should—given the fundamentals—perform poorly.

Democrats should privately be gleeful that the temporary solution will shine the uncomfortable gridlock glare once again on the GOP, making them have to make some very difficult choices in the months ahead that—either way—will have electoral consequences.

Finally, relating this to Montana directly, the whole situation puts Republican Congressman Steve Daines in quite a sticky wicket. Daines voted with his Republican House colleagues to defund ACA and to repeal the medical device tax—both positions that were unpalatable to President Obama and Senate Democrats and which precipitated the government shutdown. Montana Democrats have gleefully exploited this situation, calling Daines “Shutdown Steve” and pointing to the deleterious effects of the shutdown on Montana’s economy—in particular the closure of our two national parks.
On the other hand, Daines—like other House members eyeing Senate campaigns—joined 86 other House Republicans for the compromise plan developed in the Senate that reopened government. Daines has also attempted on other occasions to strike a more moderate pose, such as supporting the Violence against Women Act. Daines is carefully trying to keep the Tea Party support with him while also appearing to more centrist elements within the party. It was likely these more centrist or moderate elements that abandoned Rehberg for Tester in 2012—likely costing him the election.
I suspect that the last thing Daines wants is to have continual shutdown and debt ceiling crises erupting during a general election campaign—whether he chooses to remain in the House or run for the Senate (and, to be clear, I believe he is running for the Senate). It forces him to make tough, thankless decisions, keeps him in Washington and off the campaign trail, and finally, it raises the ugly specter of running as a Republican in an environment where the Republican Party would likely to continue receiving the bulk of the blame for any impasse in Washington.

In 1995 and 1996, congressional Republicans were overwhelmingly blamed for the government shutdown. History repeated itself again during the 2013 shutdown. The simple fact of the matter is it is far easier for voters to blame Congress for all the ills they don’t like about Washington. Congress has always been the least popular branch, and in head to head showdowns with a President, it is hard for them to win given the president’s inherent advantage in his use of the bully pulpit and the fact this president himself remains personally popular even if voters disapprove of his policies.  

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