Eyeing GOP grassroots, Senate candidates embrace shutdown threat

Nearly every Republican candidate running for Senate in 2014 backs the GOP’s push to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund ObamaCare — a sign of how popular they believe the plan is with conservative primary voters.

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Those supporting the GOP strategy include the seven House Republicans running for the Senate.

Reps. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Paul Broun (Ga.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Jack Kingston (RGa.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), likely candidate Steve Daines (Mont.), and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) all voted Friday for a House continuing resolution to fund the government until mid-December while defunding ObamaCare.

Most of the GOP’s candidates running from outside Congress have embraced it as well.

North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), the GOP frontrunner to face Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), said he supported the GOP’s brinkmanship because ObamaCare is a "mortal threat to our economy.”

“Republicans should do everything in our power to undo it. That means using every tool available to us including this CR fight,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Others to embrace the plan include former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R), former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R), who is the likely Republican nominee to run for retiring Sen. Carl Levin’s (R-Mich.) seat, and Alaska Tea Party candidate Joe Miller (R). Three of the four GOP candidates running for Iowa’s open Senate seat have come out in favor of the push.

Two notable exceptions are former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) and Alaska Lieutenant Gov. Mead Treadwell (R), who have not fully embraced the efforts.

Rounds applauded the House bill, but he didn’t go as far as saying he’d be willing to have the government shut down in order to force the issue.

"I support the House CR — keep government running and shut down ObamaCare,” he said. “We don't know what (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid will do to the CR on the Senate side, but it's a fight worth having. This is a prime example of the importance of Republicans recapturing the Senate in 2014."

Treadwell, who is facing Miller, said he supports “any attempt to defund and repeal ObamaCare” but that “shutting down the government is not a good idea.”

“Democrats need to come to the table,” Treadwell said in a statement to The Hill.

“While we should try to repeal ObamaCare now, the best chance of repeal is when Republicans take control of the Senate and voters replace Senators like Mark Begich [D-Alaska] that originally voted for ObamaCare.”

GOP operatives say there’s little downside for candidates to embrace the “defund” movement — especially those who are facing primary opponents.

“There is no downside to coming out against defunding ObamaCare if you're a Senate candidate,” said longtime GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

For Senate candidates who aren't already in Congress, especially, there's little political danger, he says. 

“You're not part of Washington and you're talking about people in Washington being part of the problem. Most primary voters will nod their heads and say 'this makes a lot of sense.' They're not thinking about the byzantine political spider webs that occur from trying to make that work.”

Most Republican Senate candidates, facing pressure from the base and threats from conservative outside groups, remain more concerned about potential primary foes than the general election.

In a recent poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, 50 percent of Republicans said they would shut down the government before they would be willing to fund President Obama’s signature healthcare law.

Just 21 percent said they opposed the law but didn’t believe in shutting down the government.

Additionally, most of the competitive Senate races are taking place in Republican-leaning states where opposition to ObamaCare runs high.

Still, Democrats are seeking to attack Republican candidates for their support of the defund push.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched web ads and a website to “hold Republican Senate candidates accountable for their reckless plan to shut down the government and possibly force the country into default,” according to DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky.

The Democrats' move led to sniping from National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), who said it was “disappointing that Senate Democrats would so openly cheerlead for a government shutdown.”

But Republican strategists say the all-but-guaranteed failure of the defunding effort also gives Senate candidates leeway to rail against the law without feeling any consequences.

Many Republicans — including conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — have all but admitted the House plan cannot pass the Senate.

Republicans are already privately talking about punting on the continuing resolution in order to continue the fight in the upcoming battle over raising the debt ceiling.

“Jumping on this for these guys is absolutely ballot box cash — it's the best thing for them to do because it's what the grassroots wants to see,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

“The government isn't going to shut down, and because of that they can only win.”

The real risk to GOP Senate candidates who are currently House members will come later in the negotiation process.

If Senate Democrats, as expected, strip the defunding language and send the continuing resolution back to the House, it’s unclear yet how Senate candidates in the lower chamber will handle it.

If House Republican leadership capitulates, even if only to move the fight to the debt ceiling, the candidates will be forced to decide whether they should vote against a bill that some in the base will see as surrender.

The debt ceiling fight will be another tricky spot for candidates.

“With any vote to defund ObamaCare there's no down side in it in a Republican primary. When you get to the general, it's much more of a concern,” said Bonjean.