WASHINGTON — Washington, D.C., is now in election mode, in case you missed it. The likelihood of substantial cooperation or legislation emanating from under the great dome of the Capitol this year is fading fast, a victim of this year’s midterm congressional election politics and an early focus on the presidential sweepstakes in 2016.
Republicans have a great opportunity to strengthen their hand in Washington in November. Few experts see much chance that Democrats will be able to take back control of the House of Representatives. That means the real battleground in the 2014 election cycle is the Senate, where Republicans need to gain six seats currently held by Democrats to win a majority.
Republican control of both the House and Senate in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency would seriously alter the political dynamics in Washington and could give Republicans an opening to set the stage for a winning presidential campaign in 2016.
But before Republicans can get to that point they will have to weather what are likely to be nasty party primaries that will further expose the divide between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party. Conservative targets this year include Senate Republican veterans like Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and even Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Tea Party supporters would love to find more company in the Senate Ted Cruz of Texas, the man who (along with others) brought you last October’s shutdown of the federal government.
Mainstream Republicans are concerned that if too many Tea Party-type Republican candidates get nominated this year, they will lose their chance to take back the Senate. They point to the flaws of nominating far-right candidates in 2010 and 2012 as a key reason why they failed to win enough seats to win a majority. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that a Republican who attended a party fundraiser in New York quoted Mitch McConnell as telling the group, “We’re done being the stupid party. We’re done with nominating candidates who can’t win general elections.”
The Republican’s dilemma will play out all through this midterm campaign cycle. They desperately need the energy and activism of the Tea Party to win elections. But if they allow the Tea Party too much influence in selecting party candidates for general elections, they may pay the political consequences in November and could lose their best shot in years and retaking control of the Senate.
The Bill and Hillary show
Coming soon to a tight Senate race near you—the return of the Clintons! Bill Clinton was in Kentucky this week campaigning for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who hopes to unseat Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell in November. Mr. Clinton has the distinction of being the last Democrat to carry Kentucky in a presidential race. He did it in 1992 and again in 1996.
In recent years Kentucky has moved sharply into the Republican column. Even McConnell seemed nonplussed about the Clinton visit. “I welcome him back to Kentucky,” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Every time he’s come it’s been really good for me.”
Democratic strategists see Bill Clinton as a weapon for the party where President Obama fears to tread. Obama is very unpopular in a number of Republican-leaning states and that complicates Democratic efforts to hold their majority in the Senate this year. Several key Senate races involve Democratic incumbents in Alaska, Arkansas and North Carolina. If Republicans can sweep those contests they will probably win back the Senate. Mr. Clinton may be able to campaign where the president can’t, especially in his home state of Arkansas and in North Carolina.
Of course, for Bill Clinton it’s not all about the 2014 results. He is happy to bank some political IOU’s from Democrats in key states in advance of the 2016 presidential campaign, assuming his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, decides to run.
The latest CBS News-New York Times poll found 82 percent of Democrats want Hillary Clinton to run two years from now, while only 42 percent favor a bid by Vice President Joe Biden.
Hillary Clinton still isn’t saying if she’s running or not in 2016. Clinton did weigh in on the controversy in Arizona this week on a now-vetoed state law that would have allowed people with sincerely held religious beliefs to refuse to serve gays. Clinton told thousands of students at the University of Miami that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to veto the legislation was recognition that “inclusive leadership is really what the 21st century is all about.”
It’s also worth watching to what extent Hillary gets out on the campaign trail for Democrats during this year’s midterm election campaign. For Clinton supporters it’s a tricky balance. Too much Hillary too soon could cause voters to get sick of her well before the 2016 starting bell. But since she is the party’s prohibitive favorite for the nomination, any decision to hold back or be too coy might annoy Democrats looking for a boost in their campaigns this year from the number one celebrity in the party.
For both Clintons, doing a lot of fundraising now on behalf of Democratic candidates for 2014 can pay big dividends two years from now, assuming Hillary Clinton wants to run for president.
A lot of Republicans believe that is a virtual certainty and helps explain why some of them are worried about who will emerge on their side with enough stature to challenge Clinton in 2016. The recent CBS-New York Times poll found that Republicans seem most excited about two potential White House candidates—former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.
Forty-one percent of Republicans said they would like to see Bush run in 2016, while 39 percent said the same about Paul. Bush has given little indication he is interested in the race while Paul seemingly has already been in campaign mode for months now.