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Shutdown kick-starts the 2020 congressional campaign

From the airwaves to inboxes, both parties are already in attack mode

Members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association rally against the shutdown” in front of the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association rally against the shutdown” in front of the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

While it’s impossible to predict what issues will dominate the campaign trail 22 months out from Election Day, the partial government shutdown could be an early test for both parties’ 2020 messaging.

For Democrats, the shutdown reinforces their message that congressional Republicans are not willing to stand up to President Donald Trump — a theme that resonated last November among independent voters who helped deliver a Democratic House majority. Trump has insisted that any legislation to reopen the government include funding for a wall along the southern border, something most Democrats remain opposed to.

For Republicans, the standoff places pressure on vulnerable Democrats from areas that support the president, and the GOP plans to cast those lawmakers as obstacles to Trump’s agenda who are unwilling to work across the aisle.

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2020 impact

History shows that forecasting the impact of a shutdown on House and Senate races is difficult this early in the cycle.

Take 2013, when Republicans caused a government shutdown over funding for President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, one year ahead of the 2014 midterms.

At the time, it appeared Republicans could pay a price at the polls. Instead, they went on to make historic gains in the House and take over the Senate. That’s in part because a botched rollout of the health care law shifted the public’s attention.

While the political fallout is uncertain, the current standoff could bolster broader campaign messages heading into 2020.

“It reinforces a narrative that we saw as a problem for Republicans in polling in 2018 — that Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s all high drama, and Republicans just go along with it” said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official.

So far, Democrats have been highlighting that message in statements and even on the airwaves. 

Majority Forward, a Democratic group aligned with Senate Majority PAC, launched a $600,000 television ad campaign last week. The spots are running in Iowa, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maine and North Carolina — all states with GOP senators up for re-election. 

The ads mark the earliest that the group has gone on air in a campaign cycle.

“Instead of being independent, [Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst] sides with her party leaders who refuse to even allow a vote to reopen the government,” says the ad’s narrator, encouraging viewers to phone Ernst and demand a end to the shutdown.

Democrats deployed a similar message last cycle when they unseated Sen. Dean Heller, branding the Nevada Republican  as “spineless” for his wavering stances on efforts to repeal much of the health care law.

“I think it foreshadows the problem that those Republicans are going to have in the 2020 election cycle: They’re afraid to break with their Republican base and with President Trump on key issues — but in doing so they are out of step with the moderate and independent voters who will decide elections in their states,” DSCC spokesman David Bergstein said.

Republicans (and Trump) are bearing the brunt of the blame for the shutdown in recent national polling. But that hasn’t stopped them from going after Democrats, particularly the freshman lawmakers in districts Trump won in 2016.

So far the attacks have been limited to press releases, but they do preview a message that casts these Democrats as radical.

On Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee dinged South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, whose district Trump carried by 13 points, for tweeting that both sides of the standoff cannot come together while the government is shut down (a stance shared by fellow Democrats).

NRCC spokeswoman Camille Gallo said in a statement that Cunningham “has fallen in line with his extreme colleagues … [and] has put the Democratic Party over the Lowcountry.”

Political tightrope

Lawmakers who will be top targets in 2020 — from House and Senate Republicans in Democratic-leaning areas to House Democrats in Trump districts — also have to juggle breaking with party leadership as leaders look to unify their rank-and-file.

Some Democrats in Trump districts joined GOP colleagues in the Problem Solvers Caucus for a meeting with Trump last week. Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, whose district Trump won by 3 points, is gathering signatures for a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, suggesting a timeline for reopening the government and allowing for debate and votes on various immigration proposals. 

Some House Republicans are also breaking with party leadership, supporting various Democratic funding proposals. Those include the three remaining Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016: Will Hurd of Texas, John Katko of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. 

The two GOP senators running in states Clinton won — Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine — have said they would support measures to reopen the government that did not include border wall funding.

While these lawmakers might be facing internal pressure to fall in line, both GOP campaign committee chairmen, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, said individual lawmakers have to do what’s best for their constituents.

There is also some risk that members on both sides could face pushback.

“At one level, it hurts the president, it hurts Republicans,” Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole said of the standoff. “It hurts all incumbents. You can’t go home and say you’re very effective when you can’t get this done.”

“Polls will tell you, we’re taking the toughest part of this,” Cole said late last week. “But sooner or later, it’ll just turn on all incumbents and [Democrats] have a lot of incumbents sitting in Trump seats.”

Lawmakers on both sides also run the risk of making career-ending comments, like former Nebraska GOP Rep. Lee Terry.

Terry said during the 2013 shutdown that he would not donate his paycheck because he had “a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.” 

Terry lost re-election the following year, one of only two Republicans to do so. The other, Florida GOP Rep. Steve Southerland, also faced criticism over the shutdown in his unsuccessful race against Democrat Gwen Graham.

Still, operatives caution that beyond the shutdown, a lot can happen between now and Nov. 3, 2020.

“There’s always a rush to overstate the impact of anything,” one House GOP strategist said. “But … keep in mind that this is January of the off year.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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