Both Republicans and Democrats are looking for fresh ways to pitch old arguments as they head into the final midterm election year of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Eager to capitalize as the president’s job approval rating hovers in the low 40s, Republicans are looking to hammer the clumsy implementation of Obama’s health care overhaul and bemoan an economy that, while improving, still grows too slowly. They’re already painting Democrats as fiscally irresponsible underlings of an increasingly unpopular president whose government creates more problems than it solves.
Democrats say they’ll run as the party of average Americans and paint Republicans as out-of-touch allies of the wealthy, with a stubborn streak that forced a partial government shutdown and still prevents practical solutions for national problems. They’re advocating populist positions like a minimum wage increase and an end to tax breaks for energy companies, and they’re focusing on Republicans’ struggle to connect with women, non-whites and younger Americans. They’re looking to exploit the rift between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans.
Republicans hold the House majority, and Democrats control the Senate; so each side wants to reclaim a second chamber to end the Capitol Hill divide that has largely resulted in gridlock for the past three years. Also at stake are a majority of governors’ seats, which control key policy decisions around the country and will help shape the landscape for the 2016 presidential election.
Leaders and strategists from each party insist they’ll have fresh twists to the health care fight, now entering its fourth year. Since much of the health care law takes effect in 2014, voters will be reacting to actual outcomes rather than just political hyperbole from either side.
“Obamacare is in absolute chaos,” wrote Republican Senate campaign spokesman Brad Dayspring in his year-end review. “Vulnerable Democratic incumbents and candidates … can’t keep their own spin straight.”
Republicans have enjoyed the technical struggles of the federal online exchanges where customers can attempt to buy coverage. But perhaps the best gift for the GOP: Insurers dropping tens of thousands of policy holders and offering them more comprehensive — and expensive — coverage despite Obama’s explicit promise in 2010 that “if you like your plan, you can keep it.”
That promises to be an acute issue for several Senate Democrats — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — who are running for re-election for the first time since voting for the health care law in 2010.
The ongoing budget debate could be the wild card. The Senate’s Democratic budget chief, Patty Murray of Washington, and her House counterpart, Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, crafted a spending deal in early December. Conservative groups assailed the plan for insufficient spending cuts, prompting Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders to lash out at tea party backed critics of the deal, which easily passed both the House and Senate.
There’ll be another vote to increase the nation’s borrowing limit in February or March, perhaps setting up a replay of the fall shutdown.
Republican strategist Chip Lake in Georgia called the fall GOP gambit “a defining moment in our party” that set the stage for the Ryan-Murray agreement and Boehner pushing back at internal party critics. “We’ve always navigated this divide,” Lake said, “but you’re going to see it play out very visibly over the next year.”
The president’s party usually loses seats at the six-year mark of an administration, and the midterm electorate often tilts toward the GOP, as Democrats have more difficulty turning out more casual voters — particularly younger and minority citizens — who favor them in presidential election years.