The government shutdown has both parties scrambling to predict its impact on a political environment that had turned decidedly against President Donald Trump and the Republican Party ahead of the midterm elections.
Republicans, fully in charge of Washington and fearful that voters will punish them for failing to keep the government open, have quietly taken steps in recent weeks to gauge the possible fallout. America First Action, the principal pro-Trump group, has polled to see how the public would respond to a shutdown – and to see which party it would blame. The organization is exploring the possibility of airing ads that buttress the party.
On Saturday morning, American Action Network, a pro-House GOP outside group, began airing commercials blaming the shutdown on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Concerns over a shutdown extend to the highest levels of the GOP, with some officials warning that it could further jeopardize the party ahead of a perilous midterm election.
“A government shutdown never ends well for Republicans, and it seldom ends well for the party in power,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
If the government shuts down, he added, “we’ll get the lion’s share of the blame.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who is retiring, was equally blunt in a Friday interview.
“If there is a shutdown I suspect that we Republicans, since we control all three branches of government, will be blamed – whether we deserve it or not,” he said.
Yet the shutdown could be disruptive for Republicans in other ways. The failure to keep the government open, party strategists worry, threatens to distract from their successful tax reform push – a long-sought Trump legislative accomplishment. Republican officials had hoped to turn the tax bill into a centerpiece of the 2018 campaign, so much so that during a recent political briefing with the president at Camp David, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stressed the need to highlight the benefits of the legislation.
“We will be squandering any good will that’s starting to formulate as a result of tax reform,” said Robert Blizzard, a veteran GOP pollster who is advising a number of congressional candidates.
Yet the impact of a federal shutdown can be hard to predict. It was widely expected that Republicans would face serious political repercussions when the government last shut down in 2013. Instead, they went on to seize control of the Senate and win the largest House majority since the Herbert Hoover presidency.
Some Republicans see potential political benefit to the shutdown, arguing that it could upend the political landscape and put newfound pressure on Democratic senators from conservative states up for reelection. Republicans are preparing to cast them as soft on immigration, charging that they refused to vote for the bill because they favored illegal immigrants over funding the military and children’s insurance programs. Democrats objected to the proposed government funding bill because it did not include protections for recipients of DACA, which expires in March.
On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in a tweet that Senate “Democrats have a choice to make,” between the health care program and DACA. “This should be a no-brainer,” he added.
“If Trump state Democratic senators get tagged with closing military for illegal immigrants it will be deadly,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who presided over the lower congressional chamber during the 1995 shutdown.
Democrats, too, are trying to make sense of the crisis, with strategists poring over polling numbers from the 2013 shutdown in search of lessons. But even those who are convinced the 2014 midterm results prove voters won’t punish the party held responsible believe there’s a slim chance this time may be different. Widespread discontent with Trump and the Republican Party’s total control of government, they argue, makes this shutdown different.
“The  shutdown was bad for the GOP in the moment, but larger trends overcame the hit they took,” said David Axelrod, a longtime top adviser to former President Barack Obama.
“What is different here is that they now have a president, and he will define the fall election, and a shutdown should amplify concerns many already share,” he added. “If he is viewed as a source of chaos and dysfunction, it will be a burden the Republicans will carry into November.”
Democrats spent much of the week laying the groundwork for a blame-Trump campaign. The Democratic National Committee, for instance, circulated a talking points document to surrogates, lawmakers, staff and elected officials.
“Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House. Any government shutdown falls 100% on the Republican Party, the party in power,” read the memo. “At no point in this country’s history have we ever seen one party control all the levels [and] branches of government and still fail to do their basic job of keeping the government open.”
The memo proposes using the shutdown to establish a broader narrative that “this is Trump’s Republican Party: Chaos, incompetence, and destruction.”
And on Friday morning, American Bridge, the party’s leading opposition research super PAC, held an hour-long strategy session to figure out how to spin the short-term blame game into longer-term message that could be used in this year’s races for the midterms. The group decided to prepare a round of digital ads attacking Republicans including Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who is facing a treacherous path to reelection.
Still unclear, however, is whether voters will remember the shutdown when they head to the polls in November. The answer is likely depend on a variety of factors, such as how long the shutdown lasts, how the markets react, and how it’s resolved.
“Nobody will remember this if we get a good outcome,” said Graham.
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