GOP’s Midterm-Election Nightmare Scenario

Voter backlash over the shutdown and the Obamacare fight could cost Republicans control of Congress.

2008 presidential election results (Thinkstock)
2008 presidential election results (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — The conventional wisdom among the Washington, D.C., chattering class had been that the GOP — despite its dangerous display of extremism — was at little risk of losing a majority in the House of Representatives at the 2014 midterm elections. But a host of surveys and polling data suggests that the government shutdown and debt-ceiling debate precipitated by far-right Tea Party Republicans in the past two weeks has shifted the scales in favor of a Democratic comeback.

Gerrymandered districts, which gave Republicans control of the House in 2010 and 2012, relied heavily on strategically carving out “safe” voting districts that are overwhelmingly white. The status quo until now has been that African-American, Hispanic and young voters tend to show up in fewer numbers during midterms, all but securing a win for the GOP. But the shutdown — juxtaposed as it is by attempts to destroy health care services, cut food stamps for poor families and veterans’ benefits to the nation’s heroes — may well prove a galvanizing force among Democratic base supporters.

A new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll finds the majority of Americans blame House Republicans for the shutdown. And the party’s popularity has taken a major hit — declining to its lowest level since polling began. Just 24 percent of poll respondents had a favorable opinion of the GOP, and only 21 percent had a favorable view of the Tea Party.

By a margin of 53 percent to 31 percent the public blames Republicans for the shutdown — a wider margin of blame than the party received during the Clinton era shutdown in 1995-1996 when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.

There were consequences then, and most indicators seem to predict history could repeat itself.

In 1998, following the 21-day shutdown led by Gingrich, Democrats actually won five seats in the midterm election. During the latest presidential election in 2012, Democrats gained eight seats — though fell short of the threshold needed for control. Today, for Democrats to win a House majority, 17 seats would need to switch in their party’s favor.

Public Policy Polling (the most accurate polling service during the 2012 election cycle) shows that would be within reach. Republican incumbents are currently behind in 17 of the districts analyzed, and in four districts, the GOP candidates fell behind after constituents were told their representative supported the shutdown.

According to the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, American voters now prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress to a Republican-controlled Congress (47 percent to 39 percent), and President Obama’s approval rating has increased two percentage points in the last month to 47 percent favorable. In fact, he remains the most popular political figure. His most vocal critics have fared far worse, with the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) garnering a 14 percent favorable/28 percent unfavorable rating and House Speaker John Boehner faring even worse at a 17 percent favorable/42 percent unfavorable rating.

The untold story, as Paul Krugman opines in the New York Times, is that the Republican strategy of tying the shutdown to defunding Obamacare has backfired and will cost the party dearly in 2014. “The great right-wing fear — that social insurance programs will in effect buy minority votes for Democrats, leading to further change — is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Krugman writes. “The GOP could have tried to reach out to immigrants, moderate its stances on Obamacare and stake out a position as the restrained, sensible party. Instead, it’s alienating all the people it needs to win over, and quite possibly setting the stage for the very liberal dominance it fears.”