Senate Republicans believe the silver lining of the government shutdown will be linking moderate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 to the more liberal leaders sticking them with politically unsavory votes.
The problem for the GOP is that not everyone reads the current stalemate that way — especially not Democrats themselves.
“Oh really?” Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu asked three times, laughing off a question about the GOP using the shutdown against her.
“It's so asinine,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is up for re-election in 2018 and tends to break from his party often. “It's just absolutely totally ridiculous for anyone to be in this position, thinking they can inflict this much pain on the American public and benefit by it. If anyone's benefiting, if anyone's sending out campaign letters, then you better find out what their real reason for being here is. What's their purpose? Why did we come here?”
While deriding shutdown politics, Manchin also expressed concern with President Barack Obama's refusal to negotiate over the debt limit.
On Tuesday, Manchin, who has had mixed success leading bipartisan initiatives on issues such as gun control and student loans, said he continues to support using the debt limit debate as a vehicle to attach a deficit reduction plan like the 2010 Bowles-Simpson framework.
Manchin declined to say whether he would vote to filibuster the clean debt limit bill Senate Democratic leaders are readying for floor consideration.
"I'm looking for a bigger plan. ... I'm worried about my children and grandchildren, and it seems like here all we're worried about is how we get to our next crisis," Manchin said. "People may be talking about no negotiation. You've got to negotiate. That's what we're here to do."
Landrieu, however, aligned herself with other Democrats, saying she saw no reason to add other issues to a debt limit hike.
“I don't believe the economy or the federal government should be held hostage by a minority of Republicans who can't get their way,” she said. “We've been constantly negotiating on spending levels. That's what we've been doing. And reducing our debt. But you can't hold the economy or the government hostage until you get your way.”
Manchin's and Landrieu's positions may have nothing to do with politics back home, but the four major congressional campaign committees are certainly keeping tabs on vulnerable members' policy positions during the shutdown. And Republicans in particular are attempting to tie them to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has joined Obama in refusing to negotiate over the debt limit and a government funding bill.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent out multiple emails about the “Democratic shutdown” or “#HarryReidsShutdown." An Oct. 3 email, for example, was titled “LINO: Democrats’ Harry Reid Problem” and talked extensively about the Senate Democrats’ unwillingness to take up a standalone bill to fund the National Institutes of Health.
“We've been working to #RetireReid for some time now. At some point, one would have to think vulnerable Democrats and aspiring candidates might not mind it either,” the email read.
Several GOP aides with campaign experience suggested that the NRSC and other establishment political groups are making the best of a difficult political situation that has slipped beyond their control. Especially with the rise in influence of conservative groups, such as Heritage Action for America and the Senate Conservatives Fund — which have fueled the fight to shutdown the government over the implausible goal of defunding the Affordable Care Act — establishment campaign arms have narrowed their focus to specific member targets.
“I generally agree that they're trying to find a silver lining in this, but I would not discount that Reid is demanding that they all stay in line right now and the ads tend to write themselves for next fall. The votes these members are taking now can and will be used in ads,” one GOP campaign strategist said.
Of course, Democrats have been just as aggressive in trying to use the current shutdown against Republicans and making Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, into a political bogeyman. One fundraising email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Oct. 4 was titled “Enough of this crap.”
And even the moderate Democrats being targeted by Republicans are speaking out, both at press events and on the floor.
For instance, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who is a top target for the GOP in 2014, delivered floor remarks Tuesday calling on the House to pass the Senate-approved clean continuing resolution.
“The Senate has passed a responsible bill that keeps the government running at currently reduced spending levels. The House of Representatives could pass that bill today and this shutdown could end within a matter of hours,” Hagan said on the floor. “Instead, the other side of the Capitol insists on sending us bills that they know have zero chance of becoming law — just to stage a political stunt.”
Though Democrats say publicly they are unfazed by the GOP's tactics, leaders’ private worries about vulnerable 2014 members pushed them to make unprecedented moves, including leaking a series of emails that showed Boehner's staff had been involved in discussions to prevent lawmakers and congressional staff from losing their health care benefits.
Democrats believe Boehner’s decision to move a continuing resolution that would have eliminated such benefits was a direct political shot at Democrats up in 2014. They were worried about Democrats being attacked for voting to retain "special" exemptions for themselves.
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated Manchin is up for re-election in 2016. He is up in 2018.