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.