The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee said Friday that another government shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood could help his party win seats back from Republicans who dominate the Congress next November.
"It's something that would be bad for the country, putting politics aside,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told reporters at the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast. For House Republicans, “In this case, what happens to be bad policy happens to be bad politics,” he said. The 2013 shutdown over funding Obamacare was only a peripheral issue in the 2014 election when Republicans won back the Senate and strengthened their majority in the House.
In one instance in 2013, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton flipped the issue on Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in a campaign commercial that aired after the September shutdown . He said Pryor “voted to make you live under Obamacare,” prompting Pryor to respond with his own ad that accused Cotton of being more interested in politics than governing.
In that race, the issue had disappeared from the political conversation that had shifted to issues like ISIS and Ebola by the time voters headed to the polls, and Cotton ousted Pryor with more than 56 percent of the vote.
Van Hollen said he prefers to think about a race in 2013, where he said the shutdown “did have a political impact.”
In Virginia, where, at the time, about 4.6 percent of workers were employed by the federal government, 47 percent of voters pointed fingers at Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the shutdown, while only 7 percent blamed Democrats like Terry McAuliffe, according to a Public Policy Polling survey at the time . A month later, McAuliffe won with a 2.5 percent margin.
The difference between this time, which is at a similar point in the election cycle, and the 2013 shutdown, is "People are focused on politics much more,” in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential race.
Van Hollen, who will leave the House next year as he competes with Rep. Donna Edwards for Maryland's open Senate seat — rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call — said the overriding factor in Congressional races is the national political mood.
"If the Republicans put out a (presidential) candidate way out of the mainstream," he said, "that will help Democrats in House and Senate races." He added that he views the party's prospects as more favorable in the Senate, but did not discount opportunities for victories in the House.
Polling conducted last month by Hart Research Associates and released by Planned Parenthood suggested those who shut down the government over the funding could face political pain in competitive states like New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Republican leaders have scrambled in recent days to avoid a shutdown, but Van Hollen said the political debate this September seems to "be a rerun of a very bad movie" from September 2013 – pitting Speaker John A. Boehner and others against tea party conservatives.
"They're clearly not in control of their caucus," he said. "You've got Sen. Ted Cruz and the tea party wing of the Republican Party driving policy."
Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have suggested they might agree to a short-term fix to avoid that rerun — an approach Van Hollen said he and other Democrats would support. But, other Republicans have said a fight over Planned Parenthood is one worth having, and they want to put the ball in the president's court.
“I think we want to make sure the president ultimately has to either put up or shut up, Rep. Matt Salmon said Thursday ." I mean, he threatens vetoes all the time but nothing ever gets to his desk. Ever. So our leaders wave the white flag every time there’s an opportunity.”