By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
WASHINGTON — Nobody in the U.S. House Republican majority is hitting the panic button — yet.
As Republicans' approval ratings plummet and the share of voters blaming them for the partial government shutdown rises, their concern is growing that the deadlock may threaten the size of their House majority, particularly if it escalates into a debt ceiling default.
"I worry about our majority, I worry about our capacity to pick up the Senate," Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican, said in an interview. "The Senate in '14 and protecting our House in '14 are political objectives that we need to keep in mind while at the same time we fight over the policy issues that are critical for our country."
Midterm congressional elections are more than a year away and Republicans start with a commanding position in defending the House — a likely 17-seat advantage that has looked insurmountable for Democrats even in the most favorable of environments. Yet the shutdown fallout has lawmakers, strategists and nonpartisan analysts eying a weaker-than- expected showing for Republicans.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan, Washington-based group that analyzes congressional races, was projecting before the budget impasse that Republicans would gain between 2 and 7 seats next year, said House Editor David Wasserman. Now it's estimating a "minimal net change," of which either party may be the beneficiary, he said.
"This is an unpredictable situation and if the shutdown drags on into 2014, things could change, but I'm skeptical that Democrats can sustain this level of independent anger at Republicans for well over another year," Wasserman said.
Republicans currently control House with 232 seats to 200 for the Democrats. After special elections to fill three vacancies, the breakdown is expected to be 234-201.
For now, the ire targeted at Republicans is at a rapid boil, according to public opinion surveys. In a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 3-6, the Republican Party's favorability was at a record low of 28 percent, down 10 percentage points from the previous month and 15 points below Democrats. That's the largest gap since the Republican-led Congress impeached then-President Bill Clinton in 1998, when the party lost seats in Congress for the second consecutive election.
A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released last night showed 53 percent blamed Republicans more for the shutdown, compared with 31 percent faulting President Barack Obama. Also in the Oct. 7-9 survey, 47 percent said they preferred the 2014 elections result in a Democratic-controlled Congress, compared with 39 percent favoring the Republicans.
"With the pending debt limit increase, I think Republicans increase their chances of this having an effect next November if we are blamed for not just shutting down the government but also causing a default," said Brock McCleary, the president of Harper Polling who oversaw the Republican House campaign committee's public opinion research in the last two elections.
"In many voters' minds, it could vindicate the Democratic talking point that the Republicans are willing to light the place on fire with everyone inside because they don't like the wallpaper, and from a voter perception standpoint, that's a problem," McCleary said.
That may be part of what drove the new proposal from House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, for a six-week raise in the debt ceiling to postpone the threat of a default on Oct. 17 while providing time for bipartisan negotiations on re- opening the government and enacting longer-term spending curbs. Boehner and other House Republican leaders met with Obama at the White House on Thursday to discuss that offer, and each side said talks would continue.
A way out of the current crisis can't come soon enough for Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican who faces re- election in a politically competitive suburban Denver district that Obama won last year.
Since the shutdown began, Coffman has worked to distance himself from his fellow Republicans in Congress, advocating that the party stop trying to condition continued government funding on defunding or scaling back the 2010 health-care law, and instead pass a spending measure clean of extraneous demands.
"I think I've separated myself by virtue of saying that I think we ought to have a clean continuing resolution and end the shutdown, so people know where I stand," Coffman said in an interview. "I've certainly told them that I think we ought to end the shutdown, and that I thought that using" a government funding measure "to try to accomplish other things was a very bad move."
Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, whose Illinois district voted for his party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012 by a narrow margin — 48.9 percent to Obama's 48.6 percent — said he also has been feeling political heat, and has repeatedly told House leaders he stands to lose from it.
"I've got now hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent" by groups using the shutdown to attack him in ads, he said in an interview. "So, if you ever want to know what message the Democrats are wanting to test, come to my district. I'm like the guinea pig."
"I obviously have said the entire time we've been in this: the shutdown is not good for me," Davis said. "The shutdown's not good for America."
Americans United for Change, a group that targeted 10 vulnerable Republicans this week for negative commercials, calls it "Rodney Davis' Tea Party shutdown" in its ad in his district.
The first-termer also is spotlighted in a television commercial by a Democratic super-political action committee faulting him for the shutdown, featuring his picture juxtaposed with that of a crying baby wearing nothing but a diaper.
"Rodney Davis and Tea Party Republicans recklessly shut down the government, threatening our economy, throwing a tantrum just to score political points," a narrator says in the 30- second House Majority PAC spot.
The imagery is reminiscent of an iconic 1995 New York Daily News "CRY BABY" cover that portrayed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, as a bottle-toting, diaper-clad infant in mid-tantrum during that year's partial government shutdown.
Democrats won't be untouched by the dysfunction, strategists in both parties say. In recent days, House Republicans have passed measures that would fund popular programs including veterans' services and the National Institutes of Health. The Senate, which Democrats control by five seats, never took them up, saying all of government should open. Republican groups have run attack ads against House Democrats who opposed the measures.
"Vulnerable Democrats are going to have to explain next year why they voted against veterans' pay, against funding for low-income families and against funding for cancer research," said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
During the last shutdown, the confrontation persisted into the 1996 election year, in which Republicans lost two House seats while keeping their majority in the chamber.
Whether next year's balloting will repeat that dynamic depends largely on how the deadlock is resolved, said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the former chairman of his party's House campaign committee.
For Republicans, if the struggle ultimately leads to a broader budget deal that pares the deficit, Cole said, "it can be a very good thing, but if it's mishandled and we defaulted and kept the government shut down much longer, then I think it's got the potential of being a very bad thing."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who earlier this year began a study of his partisan adversaries, said Republicans have already inflicted what may be irreparable damage on their reputation. Named Democratic candidates had a 4-point advantage over Republicans when likely voters were asked who they plan to vote for in his latest Democracy Corps survey, he said, a 5- point shift from July, when Democrats were 1 point behind.
"What's happened with the shutdown is that the House Republicans have made themselves the center of the story, and the intensity we are seeing as a result is in the hostility to the Republican Congress," Greenberg said in an interview. "For the first time, I think they've created the possibility of significant changes in the House."