The government shutdown is frustrating. But it doesn’t mark the end of the Republican party, as some have suggested. Here are 8 reasons why.
1. Most of the “damage” is already done. A shutdown does what past rounds of budgetary brinkmanship, especially over the debt ceiling, haven’t already accomplished. Partisans of both sides made up their minds long ago, and no large and politically-engaged chunk of the population is sitting on the fence.
2. There’s no reason to think the electorate will overwhelmingly blame Republicans. Even if the public is paying attention, polling suggests most Americans will split attribution for a shutdown between the two parties, though slightly more are likely to blame the GOP. This means little. The temporary surge in generic ballot support for Democrats means even less. A protracted closure will begin a lengthy process of jockeying between the House, Senate, and White House, which will overshadow blame for initiating the shutdown. Moreover, for shutdown-blame to matter, it has to be powerful enough to last until next November, and geographically concentrated enough to swing an election in a particular state or district.
3. 2014 is a long way away in political time. The last major shutdown started less than a year before a presidential cycle. We’re simply too far from the midterms for this to matter unless it tanks the economy. Structural factors aside, elections get decided close to when they occur. Think about presidential polling: At this point in 2007, Hillary Clinton was throttling Barack Obama, but was going to have a hard time besting Rudy Giuliani in the general election. Citizens are unlikely to link events now to voting late next year. Even if they do, Democrats will face the headwind that members of the president’s party historically encounter during midterms of the president’s second-term.
4. The last shutdown wasn’t especially damaging. To hear it told, Republicans gambled on a shutdown with Clinton, a staring contest ensued, and then the GOP got slaughtered at the ballot box the next go-round for its intransigence. But there’s no evidence to support this account. The Republicans in the House lost only three – that’s right three – seats in 1996, and that was running against down-ballot effects from Clinton’s reelection campaign. Until then, the GOP hadn’t held the House in successive cycles for seventy years.
And the picture stayed rosy. Democrats gained only five seats in 1998. Gingrich remained in power as speaker until 1999, only to be unseated by another Republican – an intraparty coup in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, not the shutdown. All told, Republicans have held the House in seven of the nine cycles since they shut down the government, and have only lost double-digit seat counts twice: in 2006 and 2008. If that’s failure, it looks pretty good.
5. The 2014 board favors House Republicans. Even if Americans hate the shutdown and overwhelmingly blame Republicans, few GOP House incumbents are electorally vulnerable this cycle—that’s thanks to redistricting. List how many GOP candidates are up for reelection in close districts in the lower chamber. They’ll fit on one hand. A blow to the Republican brand makes it harder to pick off Democrats in the House occupying conservative-leaning seats – three of them in Arizona for those keeping score at home. But it’s extremely unlikely that the House changes hands regardless of whether the government shutters its doors for a few days.
6. Obamacare is still unpopular, and Democrats are vulnerable in the Senate. Four vulnerable Democratic incumbents – Begich, Hagan, Landrieu, and Pryor – just chose a shutdown over an Obamacare delay. Tom Cotton will probably beat Pryor in Arkansas, anyway. Landrieu is a seasoned and talented politician, but she faces an uphill battle against Bill Cassidy. Begich has prudently gone local in Alaska, where the Republican nomination remains an open question, but it’s a very red state. Although GOP opposition to Hagan has not coalesced around Thom Tillis, this vote plays into Republican characterizations of her as an Obama foot soldier. South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia look like Republican pickups—meaning, the party needs to unseat three of these incumbents to win the Senate.
The GOP still has to defend its flanks in Kentucky and Georgia, and keep things locked down in Nebraska. A shutdown may narrow the Republican path to a majority, hurting the party’s chances in open seat races in Iowa and Michigan. Like unseating Udall, Franken, and Shaheen in Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire respectively, these uphill battles become tougher if the GOP looks “extreme” to moderate and independent voters. But whatever the shutdown costs Republicans, it’s fair to say it equally threatens the Democratic Senate majority.
7. Outside groups have more bark than bite – by far. This summer, the Senate Conservatives Fund, along with the little-known Ryun family vehicle the Madison Project, put Mitch McConnell in its cross-hairs. Now ... crickets. Matt Bevin turned out to be a charlatan and the McConnell war chest is breathtaking more than a year out. Efforts to unseat Lamar Alexander have also failed to gain much traction, despite media coverage, in part because he’s a good fundraiser and still connected to his state – unlike former senators Bennett and Lugar from cycles past. Even if Alexander loses to a primary challenger, Tennessee’s Democrats are so demoralized that they probably can’t mount an effective challenge in the general election. After all, they ran a white supremacist against Bob Corker two years ago. Seriously. With Harold Ford Jr. having beaten a fast path out of town, it’s hard to see Tennessee going blue.
Insurgent candidates could make the open seat in Georgia unnecessarily competitive and, if selected in primaries, would put Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota out of reach. But Larry Rhoden still trails Mike Rounds in South Dakota and Cassidy and Cotton have a unified party behind them. Sound and fury aside, the biggest challenge to a Republican Senate majority comes from capable Democratic incumbents like Landrieu and Begich.
8. 2016 is an undiscovered country. Talk of the GOP as a regional party without national ambitions is silly. The party will win a pile of electoral votes in the South, High Plains, Mountain West, and Southwest regardless of its candidate. The Democrats can likewise count on New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. Getting to a majority for either party is another question entirely, but Democrats are as much a “regional” party as Republicans. Regardless, 2016 is a long way away. Winning a series of state elections matters now, irrespective of media attempts to sell copy by starting the presidential horse race early.
Second, the Democrats have internal cleavages of their own. The 2008 election cycle was the longest, most expensive, and most bruising presidential primary in history. It certainly wasn’t the spectacle that the 2012 GOP primary was, with its endless debates and flash-in-the-pan candidates. But holding the presidency has papered over abiding disagreements between third way Democrats and progressives. A Clinton candidacy will alarm the left. It also directly threatens Obama’s desire to be kingmaker among Democrats for the next two to three decades. If Clinton decides not to run, it will be open-season, with Biden as a successor as weak as he is obvious. Against this sort of backdrop, the government shutdown will seem distant, even quaint.
Returning to the question about backlash, I’ll ask again: backlash against whom? A shutdown could make a few Senate races more difficult, and, in the worst-case scenario, might even put a few stretch races out of reach. In other words, it comes with a cost. However, the closure will most likely be an issue on the margins, making it incrementally harder for Republicans to win races that the GOP would likely lose anyway. That’s something to think about – but the sky isn’t falling.
Lucas Thompson is a lecturer and post-doctoral associate at Yale.