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Now the Midterm Campaign Begins — With Both Sides on Offense

The off-year election is over. Now the midterm campaign can genuinely begin.

The twin gubernatorial races settled Tuesday — always the marquee political events one year into each presidential administration — will be dissected endlessly for insights into the nation’s ideological shift and the outlook for each party’s congressional candidates next Nov. 4. Much of the extrapolation will be overwrought.

Yes, Virginia is turning a bluer shade of purple, but Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s performance is only somewhat a referendum on the GOP’s shutdown strategy or Obamacare — let alone a sign about the electorate’s interest in a Clinton restoration to the White House.

And, yes, New Jersey’s blue is now tinged a bit more purple, but Chris Christie’s vote totals only say so much about whether the establishment or the tea party will direct the future of his Republican Party in the next year or if he runs for president.

Most close House and Senate races will be decided next fall by a very different set of circumstances and arguments than those that saturated Virginia and New Jersey for the past year. Most Democratic congressional candidates will be stressing a menu of topics that only slightly echoes the things McAuliffe talked about, and a large collection of Republicans will be emphasizing issues that Christie seldom mentioned.

Predicting where each party’s campaigns will be on offense next fall is a risky proposition, because of the obviously true cliché that a year is way more than a lifetime in politics.

Just two weeks ago, remember, the national storyline was all about how Democrats were ready to make unexpected inroads now that the GOP had taken its confrontational tactics one step too far in pursuit of a lost cause. And now, the narrative is about how President Barack Obama’s twin self-inflicted wounds over health care — the mess with the insurance marketplace website and his at-best overly simplistic claims about retaining existing policies — have given Republicans a big new opening to make 2014 into what midterms are mainly supposed to be: A final opportunity for voters to express their presidential buyer’s remorse by strengthening the congressional hand of his opposition.

There’s no reason to expect the GOP will let up on its attacks of the health law, and as a political matter, the party may be better off having been denied its goal of an outright repeal. Because implementation will continue through the heart of campaign season, Republicans will be able to point to every new or continuing problem as evidence of their talking point that the federal government never should have gotten into the insurance business.

Republicans will use health care as Exhibit A in an allied line of attack, which is that their stewardship of Congress is essential to stopping the wave of burdensome, job-killing regulations that Obama and the Democrats lust after. For a third campaign in a row, this looks to be the principal focus of their campaign against Big Government. Republicans will ensure the coal-fired power plants keep burning, the offshore oil wells keep pumping, the industrial factories keep humming and the small businesses keep expanding by thwarting Obama’s energy, environmental and employment rule-makers at every turn.

Whether on the right or the farther right, GOP congressional candidates will unite behind the party’s other long-running anti-government theme: Washington is taxing too much, spending too much and ignoring the red ink that’s spreading too much — and Republicans are better in tune with the public on which are the best tough choices for the entitlement curbs and discretionary cuts needed to tackle the problem.

And the GOP will supplement those tried-and-true value propositions by pointing to the IRS politicization imbroglio, the Benghazi scandal, the domestic spying revelations and whatever other foreign or domestic dust-ups come their way. Candidates will assert that only the reins applied by a Republican Congress can stop the president from two lame-duck years of deepening incompetence and deceit at home coupled with fecklessness abroad.

The Democrats, of course, believe they’ll be able to do more than withstand these assaults because they have at least as many opportunities for going on offense.

They will argue that sending enough of them to Congress to restore united government would not only boost economic confidence and the increased employment that comes with it, but also would allow Obama to realize his long-stifled plans for boosting job creation with targeted federal investments in old-school public works and newfangled research. Along the way, they will assert that their balanced approach to curbing deficits, which would pay for such spending by pulling the noose on some tax loopholes, is what the public wants.

With the path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants now disappearing off the legislative horizon, Democrats will argue that they are the party not only of economic opportunity, but also of demographic reality — and that only they have a sympathetic ear to what’s most important to the fastest growing segment of the rapidly-changing population.

The Democrats will similarly frame themselves as the empathetic party: Their efforts to stanch violence against women, squelch new federal restrictions on abortion and shield gay workers from discrimination all represent an understanding of evolving national attitudes the other side lacks.

And on top of all that, Democrats at every turn will be touting this overarching rationale for their candidacies: Electing many more of us is essential to stopping the default-tempting, shut-it-down wacko birds from taking over their party and then threatening even minimal functionality at the Capitol.

Which party drives the narrative will probably change several times in the next 52 weeks. Another budget standoff, terrorist attack or schoolhouse massacre could add new bullet points to each side’s plan of attack.

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