Republicans have hurt themselves in the battle for the House. Here’s how.

October 23, 2013

The budget standoff that led to a government shutdown exacted a heavy toll on the Republican Party's image. Now comes fresh evidence to suggest it has complicated the GOP's effort to retain its House majority.

Data in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll should worry House Republican campaign strategists for several reasons, even as the election is still more than a year away and the GOP still has the upper hand overall. Below are the three biggest causes for concern.

1. A small cushion in GOP districts. Democrats hold a comfortable 48 percent to 40 percent lead among registered voters in the generic ballot test. But it's not just the topline national numbers (which are not perfect predictors) that should worry Republicans. It's what's going on in Republican-held districts that should turn more heads. Republicans hold an 8-point lead in districts they control, compared to Democrats' 30-point lead in their districts. An 8-point lead might not seem all that bad. But consider that we're talking about all GOP districts here, the vast majority of which are very conservative and not at any risk of switching control.  What that means is that in the swing GOP seats that will decide who wins the majority, the Republican advantage is probably smaller, if it even exists. Meanwhile, Democrats, who have to play heavy defense in addition to going on offense, appear to be in the better position to buttress their incumbents.

2. An emerging anti-incumbent bent that is hitting Republicans harder. Voters are displaying widespread frustration with their members of Congress in the wake of the shutdown showdown, with half disapproving of their representative in the House. But that frustration is more concentrated in Republican-held districts than it is in Democratic ones. A majority of registered voters in GOP districts (54 percent) disapprove of the job their member is doing compared to just 37 percent who approve. In Democratic districts, voters are split. Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to win back the majority, a very tall task on a limited playing field. But if the negative perceptions about GOP members persist in their districts, Democrats' task will be eased.

3. Broad party image problems. More than half of voters (52 percent) hold congressional Republicans responsible for the shutdown, compared to just 31 percent who hold President Obama responsible. Views about the way Republicans handled the budget standoff and negotiations grew more negative as the days went by. And the percentage of voters holding an unfavorable view of the Republican Party jumped up to 67 percent. None of these findings are helpful to any GOP incumbents.

Untitled

The good news in all of this for House Republicans is that it is October of 2013 not 2014. A year is a long time, and it remains to be seen whether the shutdown showdown will fade from voters' minds or stick around. It's hard to imagine that it will be as front and center as it is right now.

Still, it's hard to overstate how bad the last few weeks have been for the House GOP -- and not just in the polls. The shutdown has spurred House Democratic recruiting success and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised a record sum in September. Unrelated to the standoff in Washington, seats in Arkansas and Florida have opened up, expanding the map for Democrats.

Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) announced this week that he will not seek another term, opening the door for Democrats to compete for his seat. Meanwhile, Democrats have a good chance in Florida's 13th district, which had been represented by long-serving Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R), who died last week and had previously announced that he would not seek another term.

History, the fundamentals and the ample time left until the midterm elections suggest the GOP is still favored to hold its majority. But even temporary setbacks can be unwelcome news. And it's clear that the GOP's widely panned navigation of the budget debate was a blow to the party. The question moving forward is how big a blow it will end up being at the ballot box in 2014.

Fixbits: 

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview that Obama was not familiar with the problems related to HealthCare.gov until after it was launched.

A White House national security staffer was reportedly fired for tweeting under an alias.

The Democratic Party of Virginia decided to take down racy posters put up on college campuses about the governor's race.

A new WMUR Granite State poll of the potential GOP presidential field shows Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at the top of the GOP pack in New Hampshire.

Organizing For Action released a video of Obama touting the effects of the health-care law.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is considering running for re-election in 2016.

Republican Joseph Lhota ramped up his attacks on Democrat Bill de Blasio in a debate Tuesday. Polling shows de Blasio is on pace to cruise to victory in the New York City mayor's race.

Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Ben Sasse (R) in the Nebraska Senate race.

Must-reads: 

"In Utah, tea party favorite Sen. Lee faces GOP backlash over government shutdown" -- Philip Rucker, Washington Post

"The 7 Republican Senators Most Vulnerable to a Primary" -- Kyle Trygstad, Roll Call

Scott Clement contributed to this post. Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan | October 22, 2013