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Politics

Shutdown’s effect on GOP not clear-cut

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Published:   |   Updated: October 6, 2013 at 08:33 AM

TAMPA ­­— In the aftermath of last week’s government shutdown, even some Republicans are worried the result could be a political debacle for their party and its candidates.

“I remember the last government shutdown in the ’90s. It had a disastrous effect on the Republican Party,” said Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. “I fear this one will, too.”

National polls suggest Republicans will indeed suffer from the shutdown.

In a CNN/ORC poll just before the shutdown, for example, 68 percent said a government shutdown would be “a bad thing for the country,” and a 46 percent to 36 percent plurality said Republicans would be more to blame than President Barack Obama.

A 69 percent to 25 percent majority said Republicans in Congress were acting like “spoiled children.”

“This has the potential to reshuffle the deck and make the 2014 election a referendum on the extreme and irresponsible Republican stewardship,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, citing those polls.

Even Republican House Speaker John Boehner reportedly has warned colleagues privately they could lose their House majority in the 2014 election as a result of a government shutdown.

Still, the political winners and losers aren’t all that clear-cut, according to several experts of both parties, and according to data and elections results from the 1995 shutdown era.

None of those experts thinks last week’s events will help the GOP, but they question how badly it will hurt.

Their arguments:

It’s a long time politically until the Nov. 4, 2014, election, plenty of time for opinions formed in a few news cycles to change. Ending the shutdown within a few weeks could limit the damage.

After the 1995 shutdown, the GOP took losses in the 1996 election, but they weren’t massive and may not have come solely from the shutdown. Polls then suggested the public was more ready to side with Democratic President Bill Clinton against the 1995 GOP Congress than they are ready now to side with Obama against today’s Republicans.

Although Republicans may alienate swing voters with the shutdown, they may also gain by invigorating their base.

Many of the GOP shutdown advocates are from safe districts, some gerrymandered, with little to fear from a Democratic challenger.

“I see no significant reason why Republicans should pay a big price,” said John Belohlavek, a University of South Florida political historian, and formerly a Democratic political pollster and consultant. “If we’re still shut down in late November or December that could change.”

Damage to the Republican brand is more likely to hurt at higher levels on the 2014 ballot, including Gov. Rick Scott, Belohlavek said.

Scott has been promoting the Republican message that the shutdown is Obama’s fault.

“President Obama has failed in his leadership in getting a compromise here. As Harry Truman said, the buck stops at the presidency,” he told reporters Tuesday in Tampa.

Asked about polling that says the public blames Republicans more, Scott cited his own negotiations over budgets with the state Legislature.

“All I know is, when I walked in I had a $3.6 billion budget deficit; I had to work with the House and the Senate, I had to compromise, I had negotiate,” he said. “The president needs to do the same thing in Washington ... and solve this problem.”

But Democrats said the public won’t buy the GOP attempts to blame Obama.

“Most people I sense are laying blame at the foot of the tea party,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “They’re calling in artillery on their own position to make a political point.”

Besides the CNN poll, Garin cited a Quinnipiac poll done just before the shutdown that showed a 58 percent to 34 percent majority opposed cutting off funding for the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” and a 72 percent to 22 percent majority opposed Congress “shutting down major activities of the federal government” to stop the health care law.

Asked whether they’re more likely to vote Republican or Democratic for Congress in 2014, respondents went Democratic by 43 percent to 34 percent, a sharp increase from before the shutdown.

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Garin acknowledged that the poll showed voters opposing the health care law by 47 percent to 45 percent, but said Republicans “have made the debate about them and their approach rather than the merits of the law.”

Belohlavek, however, said poll questions on whether voters prefer a Democrat or Republican, or whom they blame for the shutdown, may not be a good measure of how they will decide between specific candidates in the 2014 election.

“If you’re voting for your own congressman or woman, it’s a very individualized decision,” he said. “Congress’ popularity may be at 10 percent, but we still vote to re-elect our own congress member.”

Time is the Republicans’ big advantage.

“It’s hard to know the impact of all this on the election some 13 months away,” said Florida State University political scientist Carol Weissert. “The public has a relatively short memory — although it may associate some characteristics such as intransigence to the Republican Party.”

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University of Southern California political scientist Dan Schnur, a Republican and former political strategist, acknowledged that “Republicans are digging themselves a hole they’ll have to climb out of,” but said they have plenty to time to do so.

“No one knows for certain which is more important for the Republicans — reaching out to undecideds or motivating their base,” he added.

Some pundits have cited the GOP losses in 1996 and 1998, after the 1995 shutdown, as a bad omen for Republicans today.

A standoff over proposed Medicare cuts and tax increases between Clinton and House Republicans, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, resulted in a three-week shutdown in December 1995.

In the subsequent 1996 election, Republicans lost eight House seats but held onto their majority, and gained two Senate seats, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

They lost more House seats in the 1998 election, which drove Republicans to depose Gingrich as speaker, but they still kept the majority.

In 1995, however, “It was much more clear that Republicans got a substantial share of the blame than the president” for the shutdown, said the Pew Research Institute’s Alec Tyson, who has studied political data from that era.

A November 1995 Washington Post/ABC poll showed voters blamed Republicans more than Clinton by a 46 percent to 27 percent margin, greater than the margin for Obama in most polls today.

The 1995 polls also “didn’t show a major difference in political attitudes before and after the shutdown fight,” he said. “It’s not clear how direct an influence the shutdown had” on the 1996 election.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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