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Dems betting heavily on GOP scandal overreach in 2014

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Will the current “scandals” underway in Washington damage Democrats in the 2014 Congressional races? Some Democratic strategists appear to be worried that they will. But Democrats overseeing House races are banking heavily on GOP overreach — on the likelihood that they will overplay their hand and provoke voter distaste similar to that triggered by Republicans during the 1998 Lewinsky years.

Dems have taken a two-pronged approach to today’s scandals: Dem officials and candidates quickly denounce it when there is clearly merit there — as many of them did when the IRS news hit — then quickly pivot to denouncing Republicans for refusing to focus on jobs and other immediate voter concerns.

“If you’re worried about this affecting Democratic prospects in 2014 you have missed
the fundamental frustration that voters have with the Republican congress,” DCCC deputy executive director Jesse Ferguson said in an interview this afternoon. “Voters are tired of Congress not focusing on the things that are important to them — whether that’s strengthening the middle class, fixing the budget, reducing gun violence, or passing immigration reform.”

“The real challenge for Republicans is the danger of overreach,” Ferguson added, pointing out that Republicans actually lost seats in 1998, defying historical trends that show the opposition gaining in the midterms of a president’s second term.

Interestingly, this view has support from nonpartisan observer Stuart Rothenberg, who has — rightly, I believe — predicted that Dems face a very tough road in winning back the House. Recalling the 1998 example, Rothenberg wrote: “Republicans allowed themselves to look as if they were primarily interested in scoring political points and overturning the results of the 1996 election, even if it meant paralyzing the government. That same danger exists once again for the GOP.”

Still, new polling shows that majorities believe the GOP has not yet overreached in the case of today’s scandals. What’s more, Republicans are clearly focusing on them in part to rev up the GOP base in advance of 2014, which alone would seem like a political plus in a non-presidential year. Pushed on whether this was a problem for Dems, the DCCC’s Ferguson replied: “I can’t think of a Republican primary voter who is now fired up but wasn’t going to be fired up by Republican demagoguery on the President and Obamacare already.”

But what about Obamacare? Republicans are already vowing to make Obamacare implementation problems a major issue in 2014. Now they will take this further by connecting the IRS scandal to Obamacare, since the IRS plays a role in implementation. Pressed on whether this is a problem, Ferguson dismissed it.

“Voters who are animated by conspiracy theories on Obamacare were lost already,” he said. “Republicans made a mistake last week when they put the repeal proposal front and center again, because it reminded voters that they’re not interested in reforms that fix health care. They’re interested in partisanship.”

In other words, if Republicans tie the IRS scandal to Obamacare, Dems will counter that the GOP’s answer is only to repeal the law, without replacing it with anything — tying this to the larger argument that Republicans are more interested in chasing scandals than solving the country’s problems.

Republicans intend to tie the IRS story to Obamacare as part of a larger effort to use IRS revelations to weave a narrative about Obama and Dems being overly addicted to big, intrusive government. But it remains to be seen whether voters — particularly independents and moderates — will see the IRS story as anything more than an inside-the-Beltway tempest, let alone whether they will connect it to broader questions about the Obama/Dem governing vision in ways that damage Dem candidates.