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Battle for the House in 2014: Obamacare vs. shutdown

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
updated 7:44 AM EST, Wed November 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democratic gains brought on by shutdown wiped away by Obamacare fiasco
  • Republicans believe shutdown fallout will fade, but Obamacare problems will persist
  • Democrats believe sentiment will swing back to them in fiscal fights ahead with GOP

Washington (CNN) -- In mid-October, political pundits wondered how House Republicans could have put their sizable majority in jeopardy by forcing a government shutdown.

Polls showed Republicans getting most of the blame for the shutdown and Democrats taking a lead in generic match ups against GOP congressional candidates.

But those gains were quickly wiped away by the disastrous roll out of President Barack Obama's signature health care law. Within weeks, Democrats were panicking that their support of Obamacare could cost them their Senate majority and risk losing more House seats.

House Democratic campaign chief Rep. Steve Israel of New York shrugged off GOP declarations that the new health care law's failures spelled doom for Democrats in the midterms, telling CNN in an interview, "if Republicans are going to run on rooting for failure, then so be it."

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Instead Israel insists House Republicans owned the shutdown and "2014 will not be referendum on the President, it's a referendum on whether you want to elect a Republican who will continue to do damage, it's about a do-nothing or do-damage Congress."

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Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry, who heads the effort to recruit GOP candidates to unseat Democrats and expand the House GOP majority, told CNN any blowback from the "brief moment" of shutdown in October will "melt away" but health care problems will persist.

"The shutdown ended. Obamacare will still be painful six months from now and a year from now," he said.

House Democrats need to pick up 17 GOP Congressional seats to win back the majority in the House of Representatives. But they also need to protect a list of roughly two dozen incumbent Democrats who represent red-leaning and purple districts.

GOP members say while Obama isn't on the ballot, he remains a major factor in the midterms.

The president's record low poll numbers and questions about his credibility after failing to follow through on a key promise about his health care plan are causing a drag on Democratic incumbents and challengers. Some already compare this midterm and Obamacare to the one that cost the Republicans their House majority in 2006, when then-President George W. Bush faced questions about his handling of Hurricane Katrina and the unpopular Iraq war pulled down his approval ratings.

"President Obama is very close to the low point of where President Bush was," Rep. Greg Walden, chair of National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters last week. "Those of us who were here in those days remember how it felt going into the '06 election and it wasn't good."

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The House GOP midterm playbook is a straightforward one -- highlight the problems with Obamacare and its economic impact. Walden says for now Congressional Republicans don't need to supply an alternative health care plan of their own because the Democratic-led Senate and the White House would never consider a GOP proposal.

While a group of 39 House Democrats sought to put distance between themselves and the President last week by backing a House GOP bill that allows insurers to offer current health care policies for another year, House Democratic leaders continue to stress Obamacare will turn out to be a net positive for the party by next fall.

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"Democrats stand tall in support of the Affordable Care Act." House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an interview with NBC on Sunday.

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The Democratic National Committee distributed a memo this week using examples of GOP candidates like Mitt Romney and Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli who ran against Obamacare and lost. The memo concluded, "while Republicans are campaigning to bring back a broken health care system, Democrats will be campaigning on Obamacare."

For those new Democratic candidates who weren't in Washington when Obamacare was passed, Israel says he advises new candidates to run as "problem-solvers, running on solutions." And he points to internal polling across competitive districts that shows that voters prefer a candidate who wants to "fix and improve" Obamacare rather than one who vows to "repeal and defund" the law 55%-40%.

But a new ABC/Washington Post poll out on Tuesday found that four in 10 Americans were more likely to oppose a candidate who backed the law, and only about one-fifth saying they are likely to vote for a politician who supports the law.

McHenry points to House Republican challengers who have personal experiences with the new health care law, saying they will work tirelessly to link Democrats to it.

Stewart Mills, who oversees 6,000 employees in his family's business in northeastern Minnesota, is a top GOP recruit running against Democratic Rep Rick Nolan. He talks about his company's health care costs and highlights his opposition to Obamacare as a key reason for entering the race.

Republicans believe several candidates who narrowly lost to Democrats in 2012 in competitive districts in Arizona, North Carolina, and Utah will prevail in rematches in 2014 because this time House Democrats won't have the help of a presidential ticket boosting turnout.

House Democrats say GOP record of dysfunction will cost them seats

The focus now is squarely on Obamacare, but Democrats believe the political debate will move into better territory for them as attention returns to fiscal fights on Capitol Hill. The short-term deal to reopen the government created a mid-December target for Congress to agree to a budget, and a January deadline for funding the government. The Treasury's borrowing authority runs out in mid-February.

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The number two House Democrat complained on Tuesday that House Budget Conference Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and other congressional Republicans weren't serious about budget negotiations, and warned the government could again be facing a shutdown.

"Paul Ryan ought to lead, not follow his caucus down a road, which would lead to shutdown. That would be irresponsible and harmful and I hope he doesn't do that," Rep Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday.

The Democratic Congressional campaign committee believes the shutdown was a recruiting bonanza for them, and helped contribute to some recent GOP retirements. Israel points to eight GOP seats that were put in play directly because of the extended standoff.

Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen jumped in the race against Nebraska GOP Rep. Lee Terry after Terry said he needed his government paycheck to afford his home. On his campaign website, Festersen positions himself as an outsider: "I am running for Congress to help change a dysfunctional Washington. The time has come for moderate minds and respectful leaders to work together."

Democrats also say Republicans' lack of diversity and inability to reach out beyond their base -- a major factor in their national loss in 2012 -- will also hurt their chances to make inroads in Democratic districts in 2014.

"The movement is underway and it takes time," McHenry admitted. But he pointed to GOP candidate Carl DeMaio in San Diego, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Scott Peters. DeMaio is openly gay and backed by the House GOP campaign arm.

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