Nervous Republicans Play It Safe Before Midterms

The Fiscal Times

In the prelude to the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 mid-term election, GOP lawmakers signed off on a “Contract With America” drafted by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey that spelled out a bold and ambitious legislative agenda if their party were back in control. 

The revolutionary “contract” included a commitment to balance the budget, shrink the size of government, toughen criminal sentencing guidelines, overhaul the welfare system, provide tax incentives for small businesses to create new jobs, grant a new $500 per child tax credit, and impose term limits on members of Congress. The contract was a galvanizing force for congressional Republicans and helped nationalize individual House and Senate races.

Related: McConnell Vows Tough Action Next Year – Even If It Means Another Shutdown    

Contrast that with the legislative agenda the Senate Republican leaders are currently touting in the event they win back control of the Senate Nov. 4. 

A front-page report in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal says some of their “top goals” include approving the Keystone XL pipeline, adopting rules to accelerate overseas trade agreements, speeding up federal review of natural-gas exports and repealing a tax on medical device manufacturers that was approved as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. 

With the exception of the Keystone pipeline – which garners widespread support in recent polls  -- the rest of the agenda is not likely to fire the imagination of average voters or the GOP’s tea party wing. 

Moreover, Senate Republican leaders say that while their goal is to extract policy concessions from President Obama next year – it would be done in a far less confrontational manner that doesn’t trigger another “market-rattling” crisis like last fall’s government shutdown. 

Related: The Three Hottest Issues Dominating the Midterm Elections 

“I want to put things on the president’s desk that he will have to think long and hard about and would be encouraged to sign,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, told The Journal. What’s more, he said, many Democrats have been attracted to these proposals, which would make it more difficult for Obama to dismiss them out of hand.  

There is something going on here that suggests that, with two months remaining before the election, Senate Republicans are nervously recalculating their rhetoric and strategy. Until now, they seemed to be coasting towards a sweeping victory in November that would catapult them back into power in the Senate while retaining control of the House. 

Despite political analysts continued forecast that they will gain a narrow majority in the Senate for the first time in nearly a decade, there are signs that they must do more than simply batter President Obama’s domestic and foreign policy record to win the election. 

“We’re all very cautious in watching how all these races develop,” Ron Bonjean, a former Republican congressional communications strategist, told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday. “And we know that it’s very possible that it could go the other way.  Most Republicans believe in keeping their eye on the ball and not measuring the drapes before November.” 

Related: Why the GOP Can’t Count on a Midterm Wave Election 

Barrasso’s comments are especially  interesting coming so closely on the heels of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent bravado in vowing to use the budget and future spending bills as a cudgel to force President Obama into accepting Republican policy changes if the GOP wins back the Senate. The Kentucky Republican said that a top agenda item for him would be to roll back Environmental Protection Agency clean air regulations that he says are seriously harming the coal industry in his home state. 

“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell said in an interview with Politico last month while he campaigned in Western Kentucky coal country. “That’s something he [Obama] won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.” 

Politico and others interpreted McConnell’s tough remarks as a thinly veiled threat to shut down the government again to force Obama to go along with the new Republican majority’s policy demands. When his comments drew sharp criticism from Kentucky Democrats and news organizations, McConnell quickly disavowed any interest in another government crisis. “Remember me? I am the guy that gets us out of shutdowns," McConnell told CNN in an interview last week. “It’s a failed policy,” he said of shutdown.

Related: Money Behind the Midterms—How the Game Has Changed

With much at stake this fall, Senate Republicans who once vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act are now cautiously cooling their rhetoric. They don’t want to give the White House and congressional Democrats too big an opening to argue that a GOP victory would likely precipitate another government crisis – like last fall’s 16-day shutdown or the near default on U.S. debt in the summer of 2011.

Bonjean said that the Senate GOP agenda, while a far cry from the highly detailed and prescriptive “Contract With America,” is “a work in progress that includes some items that could pass with bipartisan majorities on Capitol Hill.

“Republicans feel that if they put out a big, across the board agenda, that it takes the spotlight off the failures of the president and Senate Democrats and changes the story,” Bonjean added.”

However, some conservatives argue that it would be a mistake to pass up the opportunity to present a much bolder set of goals. “A Republican-controlled Congress should not only seek to rein in President Obama, but simultaneously put forward a positive agenda that draws a clear contrast between the two parties,” said Dan Holler, communications director for the conservative Heritage Action for America. “Demonstrating leadership through a clear policy vision is essential if the party hopes to win the White House in 2016.” 

Another possibility is that after months of reveling in predictions by political analysts and pollsters that the GOP will almost certainly pick up the six seats they need to reclaim control of the Senate, the tide is beginning to turn against them – and they are running scared.   

Republican have virtually secured pickups in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia, analysts say. That means they need to hang on to contested seats in Georgia and  Kentucky while winning three of the seven other “toss-up” seats now held by Democrats—namely in  Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa,  Louisiana,  Michigan and North Carolina, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report

This Could Be Mitch McConnell’s Last Hurrah

McConnell is facing a tough challenge from Democratic secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, and there’s no guarantee he will be around next January to claim the majority leader’s position, even if his party prevails. 

At the same time, incumbent Democrats who once looked as if they were going down have shown surprising resilience and strength with only two months to go before the election. 

Twice before – in 2010 and 2012 – Republicans enjoyed enormous advantages heading into the general election but blew their chances of regaining majority control of the Senate. As Bonjean noted, it could happen again.

Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster and strategist says, “Republicans have better than a 50-50 shot to take control – maybe 60-40 – but there are a whole lot of very, very close races that would have to go Republicans’ way in order to take control.”

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