WASHINGTON — The partial government shutdown may undermine Republicans' edge in the 2014 campaign, harming a prime opportunity to win control of the Senate and protect their 32-seat House advantage.
Heading into the midterm elections, the political math favors Republicans. Democrats are defending seven Senate seats in politically competitive states compared with only two for their adversaries.
The shuttering of the government, which is deeply unpopular with voters, could cut into those advantages by obscuring their message and highlighting internal rifts, political strategists from both parties said.
"It's not helpful for us because it takes Republicans off offense at a time when we should be taking advantage of a favorable map," said Brian Walsh, of Washington-based Singer Bonjean Strategies who is a former aide to the party's Senate campaign committee. "Republicans should be on offense right now on Obamacare, and instead, all the focus is on infighting and the shutdown."
Voters disapprove of the job being done by congressional Republicans by 74 percent to 17 percent — their lowest score ever — while disapproving of Democrats' job performance 60 percent to 32 percent, according to a national poll released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. President Obama had a 45 percent to 49 percent job- approval rating.
"The American people are so fed up they may blame everyone involved, and that's not good for Democrats either," said Jim Manley, a senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC who is a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The saving grace for Senate Democrats in 2014 is that House and Senate Republicans are making their party brand so toxic they're going to make our job easier."
Democrats currently control the Senate with 54 votes to Republicans' 46, putting a takeover in reach if Republicans win a net six seats. Republicans dominate in the House with 232 seats to Democrats' 200, with three vacancies. Most congressional districts are politically safe for incumbents because the House district lines are favorably drawn to match the voters' partisan leanings. That makes the task of a Democratic takeover — a 17-seat gain — a tall order.
While the shutdown showdown doesn't change those facts, "the Republicans may be widening the path for us" to win seats, said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, a New York representative.
"This will be a referendum on their dysfunction, their chaos and their hurting the economy and middle-class families," Israel said in an interview.
As national parks closed and federal workers stayed home, some voters voiced frustration that gridlock persists.
"I don't necessarily like Obamacare, but the agreement was made and it became law," said Brian Anderson of Dalton, Georgia, an independent in a heavily Republican district who is president of his local Chamber of Commerce. Linking an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act to keeping the government open "has been farcical," he added.
Following the 1995-96 partial government shutdowns, then- President Bill Clinton won re-election with 49 percent over his Republican rival Bob Dole, while Democrats chipped away at Republicans' House majority, gaining two seats without taking control. Senate Republicans gained two seats and maintained power.
The next midterms are more than a year away, and the current saga may be a dim memory for voters by then. What's more, the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, is likely to be an overriding issue in 2014 contests, with Democrats on defense on what polls show today is an unpopular measure.
The most recent Bloomberg National Poll found 3 in 5 respondents saying they thought the law would raise medical-care costs, not lower them. A third said they would fare worse rather than better under it. Even so, a majority of Americans said Republicans should stop demanding the statute be defunded in exchange for keeping the government open.
"Obamacare will be the bigger issue in 2014," said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the Republican House campaign committee. "Government will end up getting funded at some point, some time — I mean, it's not going to be shut down forever — and people will move beyond that."
Republicans' refusal to keep the government running as long as the health-care law remains in full effect will help clarify voters' choice in the elections, he added.
"This is part of governing, standing your ground and showing people what you believe in," Walden said.
That's the stance that small-government tea party activists are pressing Republicans to take.
Still, some of those preparing to face voters next year concede there are risks to that strategy.
"In the short term, we'll probably take a hit for the shutdown," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is facing a crowded Republican primary field in his run for a second term. "But in the long term, Obamacare is going to be a liability in 2014" for Democrats.
If it turns out to be a success, Graham said, Republicans could pay a political price. "We won't get punished for trying to fight the good fight against a bad idea; if it turns out to be a good idea, then we'll be in trouble," he said.
Democrats agree the health-care measure could prove a liability in their re-election battles and the shutdown fight has given Republicans opportunities to force difficult votes.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said he wants to fix five or six different aspects of the law to make it more effective. The Republicans' tactics have instead produced a series of "all-or-nothing" propositions that have forced him to vote against things he supports — such as repealing a medical-device tax — because he doesn't want to tie them to funding the government.
"Do I worry about what these guys are doing? They've already spent a half a million dollars in the last four weeks in Alaska, which is a lot of money, a lot of TV," Begich said. "It's heat, no question."
Still, he said, today's tactics tarnish Republicans without substantially changing the dynamics of his race.
"I already voted for the Affordable Care Act, so it's like somehow magically that vanishes?" Begich said. "I tell my constituents, 'I'm going to tell you what's in the bill and how you can benefit from it and tell you where we're working to fix it, but if you want to go into this for-or-against, that battle's over.' "
_ With assistance from Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta and Romy Varghese in Philadelphia.