02:44 - Source: CNN
Rep. Israel: Buyer's remorse on tea party

Story highlights

Republicans take brunt of blame for government shutdown, debt fight

Some handicappers say Democrats have improved their chances in midterms

Tea party groups expected to be very active next year

Democrats showed strong unity during Congressional standoff

Washington CNN —  

Long before the ink had dried on the Senate deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, the writing was already on the wall for the Republican Party: The last three weeks have hurt them.

They have borne the brunt of the blame for shutting down the government, and polls show that a large majority of Americans disapprove of the way the Congressional GOP has handled the fight over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.

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And now, non-partisan political handicappers say the likelihood of Democrats winning the House and maintaining control in the Senate in 2014 has increased.

“Republicans have ratcheted up their risk,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. “There is now a plausible case for the midterms being a plus for the Democrats, where I would never said that six months ago.”

Rothenberg said the GOP is being perceived as “a chaotic, disorganized, confused party” and it is likely that their fundraising numbers will likely begin to slow in the coming months.

“Big dollar donors, who are more pragmatic business types, are now worried about where the party is going,” he said. “For Democrats, this helps them for 2014 in recruitment, in fundraising and in overall morale.”

Conservatives and Obamacare

The deal, which the Senate and the House agreed to late on Wednesday, raises the debt ceiling until early next year and reopens the government that has been shut since October 1.

The shutdown began because conservative Republicans - emboldened by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah – pushed Republican leaders to tie funding the government with significant changes to Obamacare and Democrats refused.

Throughout the 16-day shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership colleagues listened to their caucus and demanded that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats come to the negotiating table to make concessions on the presidents sweeping healthcare law.

But when Democrats didn’t budge – only agreeing in the end to increase fraud protection on the healthcare program – Republican leadership was forced to agree to a scaled back deal.

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On top of drawing the ire of a majority of the American people, the back and forth highlighted a noticeable rift in the Republican party: between more pragmatic Republicans and their emboldened tea party colleagues.

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As news of the deal broke, unhappy tea party groups, who saw the deal as a capitulation by the establishment Republicans in Washington, began to bang their primary challenger drum, promising to run against Republicans that didn’t back tying Obamacare to the shutdown and debt ceiling.

“Congress will feel the repercussions of refusing to negotiate at all and for refusing to live under the same law the forced on the American people,” Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots said, who told CNN to expect tea party groups to fervently challenger other Republicans in 2014.

“I expect tea party groups will be very active next year,” Martin said.

And Martin may be right. Just a quick look at Republicans running for reelection in the Senate shows tea party groups are already mobilizing to take on other Republicans.

Challenges to incumbents

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been a leading critic of Obama’s policies on a number of fronts, but in heavily conservative South Carolina, a Republican incumbent can’t take anything for granted. Graham faces a crowded primary field against state Sen. Lee Bright, businessman Richard Cash, and PR executive and Citadel graduate Nancy Mace.

At this early stage of the race, Graham has the clear advantage in terms of money and organization. But that could change if conservative tea party activists begin to coalesce behind a single “anyone-but-Graham” candidate.

The story is similar for Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is now seeking his third term in 2014. He faces a primary challenge from state Rep. Joe Carr and 2012 Senate candidate Brenda Lenard.

Alexander is not a favorite among conservative tea party activists. In August, a coalition of 20 Tennessee tea party and conservative groups sent the Senator an open letter asking him to retire.

And the highest profile GOP senate primary of 2014 pits three-term incumbent Mike Enzi of Wyoming against Liz Cheney, the eldest daughter of former Vice President and Wyoming favorite son Dick Cheney. The national party is backing Enzi, while Cheney has the backing of conservative activists.

Many in the tea party see these races – along with races in the House – as an opportunity.

“The Republicans have had five years to try and make some progress in remedying the financial ills that plague our nation’s future, and have made little to no progress,” the Tea Party Express said in a written statement. “The silver lining in all this is that the 2014 elections are just around the corner and ‘We The People’ have our chance to tell our leaders exactly how we feel about the ‘compromise’ reached today.”

As tea party groups threaten Republican-on-Republican challenges, more moderate Republicans have publicly said that would be a bad idea.

“The way to achieve more conservative governance in 2015 is not spending $$ to defeat Republicans in 2014,” Tim Miller, the executive director of the America Rising PAC, a Republican research firm, tweeted hours after the Senate deal was reached.

Miller told CNN he still sees the political map in 2014 as favorable for Republicans, especially if they focus on beating Democrats on Obamacare and the debt.

“We need to take back the Senate and build on our House majority next November,” Miller said. “No progress can be made if that objective isn’t met.”

Miller continued: “So I believe GOP and conservative groups interested in advancing a conservative agenda to focus their energy” on defeating vulnerable Democrats in traditionally conservative states and districts.

Democrats unified

Rothenberg said these divisions in the Republican Party – between those seeking primary challenges and those seeking to target Democrats – need to be worked out before the GOP can comfortably say they will keep control of the House.

“At some point, the tea party are going to really want to accomplish stuff,” Rothenberg said. “And in order to accomplish stuff, they are going to have to change their views about compromise and negotiations. If to them, victory is taking over an emasculated, weak, unsuccessful Republican Party, if that is what they think victory is, then maybe they can have victory.”

All of this news, has been music to many Democrats ears, many of whom believe the last three weeks – and the Republicans fledgling poll numbers around the shutdown – have made it less likely the those vulnerable Democrats will lose in 2014.

Before the shutdown, Jim Manley, a longtime Senate Democratic aide, said the vulnerability of Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina made Democrats losing control of the Senate a possibility.

Now, he is far more bullish on his party’s chances in both the Senate and House.

“I think that for the first time, in light of what has happened, I think for the first time we can honestly take a look at it and question whether it is possible” to keep control of the Senate and win the House, Manley said. “The Republican Party brand is broken and I am not sure if it can be fixed.”

The key for Democrats, Manley pointed out, was their unity during the government shutdown. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi repeatedly delivered the majority of her caucus against House Republicans piecemeal plans to fund the government, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did the same in the Senate.

“That shows me,” Manley said, “that we are not scared of the tea party types like Democrats had been in elections past.”

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CNN’s Mark Preston and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.