In the wake of Speaker John A. Boehner’s resignation , the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it sees an opportunity to push a narrative into 2016 that the House Republican Conference has moved too far to the right for the country.
But recent history — in which Republicans earned their largest majority in decades — shows that’s a tough sell to voters, who view the entirety of Washington, D.C., as politically broken. And even Democrats concede that a leadership shakeup is tough to make into an issue that will help them at the ballot box next fall.
“[Democrats] are going to get a bunch of procedural advantages to there being turnover in Republican leadership,” said one national Democratic strategist who has worked on congressional races, saying the National Republican Congressional Committee could see a short-term dip in fundraising as the new leadership builds relationships with donors. “But those advantages are not the same thing as the political landscape being altered.”
The DCCC rolled out the attack line following Boehner’s resignation last week.
“The Republican Party is broken and Speaker Boehner’s resignation is the starkest and most high-profile example of that dysfunction and chaos,” DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján said at a Tuesday morning news conference. “It’s disturbing that Speaker Boehner was somehow not conservative enough for many of our Republican colleagues.”
Later Tuesday, the DCCC hit freshman GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin — a top target in his Long Island-based 1st District — for his support of the House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy for majority leader.
“You are the company that you keep, and Congressman Zeldin’s endorsement of Tea Party Congressman Trey Gowdy for a leadership position is just the latest on a growing list of Zeldin’s far-right wing associations,” DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly said in an attack email.
But privately, Democrats say that kind of message doesn’t often resonate with the average voter, many of whom are unaware of the names and personalities on Capitol Hill.
Exploiting House Republicans’ intraparty squabbles is also hard to use in television advertising, as it’s difficult to make the point in a 30-second ad.
And in a year like 2016, it will be a hard message to break through to independent and crossover voters, who are focused on the presidential contest.
Still, Democratic strategists say if the transition of power leads to things such as government shutdowns and defaults on the country’s debt, then Democrats could see a boost at the polls.
“If the dysfunction in the Republican caucus leads to a shutdown of the government or total gridlock to the point where Republicans are to blame for what’s happening, it could very well have an impact,” said Bill Burton, a Democratic strategist and former campaign and White House adviser to President Barack Obama.
Still, even in that scenario Democrats would need to find a way to make that narrative stick. Despite the government shutdown in October 2013, which Republicans largely shouldered the blame for according to polling, only two House GOP incumbents lost re-election in 2014.
“The last [shutdown] didn’t have an impact and just kind of went away,” said another Democratic strategist who works on congressional races. “That tells me that something like that doesn’t stick as much on our side as much as we would like it to.”
For now, Democratic strategists say Boehner’s resignation and the ensuing leadership shuffle is an issue that will resonate with the Democratic base. Those politically informed activists and large-dollar donors could be motivated to give to fight back against a new leadership slate.
“I do think that right now there’s an opportunity to sort of take advantage of their disarray and chaos with low-dollar donors and high-dollar donors,” said a third Democratic strategist who works on House races. “I do think there’s that.”
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