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Retreat on Debt Fight Seen as G.O.P. Campaign Salvo

February 18, 2014
The New York Times
Carl Hulse and Jonathan Martin

Senators Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, two Republican leaders facing primary challenges, knew they would take an immediate political hit from the Republicans’ Tea Party wing by voting to clear the way for a debt-limit increase. They also knew that their willingness to cast that vote would enhance their party’s chances of gaining a majority in the Senate next year.

“It was not an easy exercise, but it keeps the focus on the issues we want it to be on,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who argued that by putting the debt limit fight behind it last week, his party had robbed Democrats of an opportunity to portray Republicans as reckless. “We dodged a bullet here.”

Democrats acknowledge that the Republican retreat on the debt issue was politically wise and represents yet another factor in the mounting concerns over their own Senate prospects. Democrats are counting on bursts of political extremism to wound Republican candidates. The move by Mr. McConnell, of Kentucky, and Mr. Cornyn, of Texas, showed that at least some Republicans have learned from past defeats.

“They seem to want to be on their best behavior in an election year,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

With their party on offense in its push to capture the Senate, Republicans say they are determined to avoid the mistakes and stumbles that Democrats exploited in 2010 and 2012 to maintain control of the Senate.

Republicans feared that an impasse over the debt limit would have set off a reaction in the financial markets and spurred days, if not weeks, of negative attention on Republicans over their threat of a government default. Mr. McConnell and Mr. Cornyn chose to expose themselves to primary attacks to fend that off.

Democrats were already contending with serious structural challenges in their fight to hold the Senate, given that they are defending, in the historically difficult sixth year of holding the White House, seven seats in states that Mitt Romney carried in the 2012 presidential election. President Obama remains unpopular in those states, and his standing could have a significant bearing on the outcome of those elections.

Now, with Republicans giving up on the debt issue, and conservative advocacy groups overwhelming some candidates with television ads in crucial states, Democrats are growing nervous about the conditions in which this year’s elections will be fought.

“We’re faced with a grim reality that more money is being spent earlier in some of these hot races than we’ve ever seen,” Mr. Durbin said. “We’re spending some, but we can’t keep up with them.”

With more than eight months to go before Election Day, outside pro-Republican groups, led by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, have spent over $20 million on commercials in Senate races, a figure that has alarmed leading Democrats.

“This is a serious threat,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s former chief consultant. “And it would behoove Democratic activists and donors who are whipped up about 2016 to shift their focus, or they may be sitting here in November, looking at a Republican Senate to go along with the House.”

A liberal “super PAC” began broadcasting ads last week in Arkansas and North Carolina — the two states with perhaps the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and where Americans for Prosperity has already spent millions — but Democratic strategists acknowledge that their candidates are being damaged by the television onslaught.

“The spending has had a clear and meaningful impact on our incumbents, and they have not had the resources to fight back,” said a Democratic pollster working on some of the most hard-fought races this year.

One Democratic senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations, said the two recurring areas of concern brought up at weekly lunches had been the soaring outside spending by conservatives and “the consequences of Obamacare.”

Democrats say their party’s standing was driven down not just by the bungled rollout of the new health law, but most notably by the pledge from Mr. Obama and many Democratic senators that people could keep their existing health insurance plans.

“People see national polling, and maybe the national polling is getting a little bit tougher, so they get nervous,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “But at the end of the day, it ain’t about national polling. It’s about individual races.”

Mr. Obama told Democratic senators at their retreat this month at Nationals Park in Washington that he would understand if they needed to distance themselves from him and his administration. But with the vulnerable Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana in mind, he also reminded them that they would need him in some parts of their states, in her case in heavily Democratic New Orleans.

In a sign of how worried they are about being linked to Mr. Obama, some Democratic senators are hardly waiting for his go-ahead. “I don’t need permission from him to make that decision,” said Senator Mark Begich of Alaska. “He maybe thinks that, I don’t know, but I don’t need his permission. From Day 1, when I came in, I said here’s where he’s wrong.”

While they say they are not panicked, top Democrats acknowledge that the landscape looks worse than they had anticipated. But last week, they got what they saw as a leg up in Montana’s Senate race when John Walsh, the Democratic candidate, was installed in the Senate to succeed Max Baucus, who became ambassador to China. Mr. Walsh was on television Friday with a new ad that highlighted his combat service in Iraq.

In the coming months, Democrats also intend to push a minimum-wage increase and other economic proposals with appeal to the middle class. They say Republicans will not be able to duck a fight on those policies as easily as they did on the debt limit.

Republicans caution that there is still plenty of time for missteps, as they warily watch crowded primary races in states like Georgia and North Carolina with the potential to produce flawed general election candidates similar to those who cost them races in 2010 and 2012.

“It’s not clear in some of these races that an electable candidate will emerge from the primaries,” Mr. McCain said.

For now, Republicans are relishing their sidestepping of a fight over the debt limit.

After his difficult procedural vote to allow the debt ceiling to be raised, Mr. McConnell headed off to a party fund-raiser at the nearby headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

He entered not to catcalls from opponents of the debt increase, but to enthusiastic applause and shouts of appreciation from assembled supporters who viewed Mr. McConnell’s vote as an important step toward majority status in 2015.

 

 

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