WASHINGTON – Next year was supposed to be a prime opportunity for Republicans to retake the Senate. And for a while, everything seemed to be breaking their way: a wave of Democratic retirements, a fluke in the electoral map that put a large number of races in states that President Obama lost, a strong farm team of conservative Senate hopefuls from the House.
Then the government shut down. Now, instead of sharpening their attacks on Democrats, Republicans on Capitol Hill are being forced to explain why they are not to blame and why Americans should trust them to govern both houses of Congress, when the one they do run is in such disarray. Complicating their prospects, the grass-roots political force that has provided so much of the energy for conservative victories over the last four years – the tea party – is now working against Republicans almost as often as it is working for them.
As a result, many Republicans are openly worrying that the fallout from the fiscal battles paralyzing the capital will hit hardest not in the House, which seems safely in Republican hands thanks to carefully redrawn districts, but in the Senate. Republican infighting, they say, has given Democrats the cover they need to deflect blame and keep their majority.
“The tea party benefits when the energy is focused on the Democratic Party and their agenda,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant and former strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “What’s concerning is a select few groups trying to turn that fire inward on the Republican Party. And that is not helpful.”
In states like Georgia, Louisiana and Montana, the members of the House who are now running for the Senate are demanding that Obama make concessions to his signature health care law in exchange for reopening the government. That might help in a Republican primary, but it puts the candidates at risk of damaging their viability in the general election.
And in other states like Kentucky, where the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is fighting off a primary challenge from the right, being associated with Republicans in Washington is as freighted as it has ever been.
With the elections still a year away and the impact of other factors like the economy and the success or failure of the new health care law unknown, it is impossible to tell what might alter the field. But Republicans, Democrats and independent experts all agree that the government shutdown has added one more cross for Republicans to bear.