Democratic predictions that the government shutdown would drag down Republicans didn't play out in Virginia, according to exit polls, a sign that the issue might not boost the party in 2014 as much as Democrats had hoped.
While Democrats won Virginia's gubernatorial election, exit polls show almost as many voters blame President Obama for the shutdown as blame House Republicans.
That’s a much narrower split than was found in national polling on the issue following the shutdown.
If the shutdown didn't move votes in Virginia, a swing state with a disproportionate number of federal workers, less than a month after it occurred, it's unclear whether voters in red states a year from now will turn out to vote against Republicans on the same issue.
“It's a year away, and that was always the concern, that memories would fade a little bit. But it's a part of a larger narrative of GOP candidates running so hard to the right,” says Democratic strategist Brendan Daly.
Several Democrats argued that Terry McAuliffe’s narrower-than-expected win was partly because the shutdown’s impact on the polls has been diminishing in recent weeks. But most stand by their view that the shutdown hurt Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), and will hurt GOP candidates next year.
“Ken Cuccinelli is the first political casualty of the Republican government shutdown but he certainly won't be the last,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Kelly Ward said Wednesday.
Other Democrats say that the shutdown helped damage the Republican brand, further marginalizing Cuccinelli as a candidate unwilling to compromise and outside the mainstream.
But they admit it wasn’t a primary issue in Virginia because Cuccinelli wasn’t running for Congress. Democrats argue the House Republicans running for reelection or for the Senate next year will be in a different situation.
“You would expect a federal shutdown to have less impact on a governor’s race than on congressional and Senate races where the candidates actually voted for the shutdown,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, a columnist for The Hill, who polls for a number of Senate candidates.
“You have to remember that there was a little bit of distance between Cuccinelli and the House Republicans who were responsible for the shutdown,” says Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “In House races and Senate races where you have House Republicans who are going to have to answer for their role, there it's going to be a little bit easier for Democrats to make that argument.”
Republicans argue that the Virginia race tightened because of ObamaCare, though the exit polls found a similarly narrow split on the law.
“It'd be hard for anyone to make the case that ObamaCare didn't have a more prevalent and tangible effect than the shutdown did,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring.
Democrats acknowledge the shutdown itself will likely be mostly forgotten by this time next year. But they say it can be used as a data point to show voters that Republicans aren’t able to govern.
“We're in an 80-day world, things are really hard to stick. It's that constant building of a narrative that actually moves voters,” says Democratic strategist Penny Lee.