House Republican Strategy for 2014 Victory: Think Small, Do Little

With the generic ballot surprisingly turning their way, no one wants to jinx it

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

House Speaker John Boehner rebukes conservative groups that oppose the pending bipartisan budget compromise during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Dec. 12, 2013

Correction appended: Dec. 15, 2013, 10:00 p.m. E.T.

If House Republicans had it their way, the election would be moved up 11 months and held this week. “Ideally, we’d freeze things the way they are in amber until November,” says one senior GOP House aide. “But, obviously, that’s not possible.”

Just two months ago, Washington was buzzing about how House Speaker John Boehner might lose his 16-seat majority in the wake of the government shutdown. After all, the only other time in recent history when the party out of power lost seats in second-term midterm election was in 1998 after Republicans overreached in their oversight of Bill Clinton.

But along came the great Obamacare debacle, and suddenly Democrats saw their 7-point advantage in generic congressional polling flip. At the end of October, Democrats held a 47% to 40% advantage over Republicans; by Dec. 12, Republicans led Democrats 44% to 41%, according to the Real Clear Politics’ average of national polls. “The biggest threat to Republicans are themselves, particularly if they were to shut the government down again,” says David Wasserman, who follows House races for Cook Political Report. He predicts that if the election were to be held today Republicans would net five to 10 seats.

A desire to avoid the government shutdown triggered two days of Boehner screeds this week against meddling outside groups who condemned the budget deal hammered out by Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Calling the groups “ridiculous,” Boehner warned they are “using our members and using the American people for their own goals.” Several conservative groups raised millions of dollar off the last government shutdown and are again calling for another shutdown. It is only Obama’s unforced error with the implementation of Obamacare that salvaged those poll numbers for Republicans.

Afraid of squandering this unforeseen gift, Republicans are treading lightly, hoping they can freeze the electorate’s mood for the next 11 months, a tall order given the pace of news. Little is scheduled to happen next year, legislatively speaking. Congress is expected to wrap up work started this year on the Farm Bill, the National Defense Authorization Bill, the budget and Trade Promotion Authority. They may also attempt to pass a small immigration package, which would not pass the Senate, aiming to inoculate House Republicans from Latino-voter ire since the Senate’s comprehensive bill has died in the House.

But House majority leader Eric Cantor has told his colleagues that he is afraid, for example, to tackle tax reform despite the insistence of Way and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, who is eager to push through a bipartisan bill he hammered out with Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus. Cantor fears a big compromise or even whiff of a grand bargain could set off the restless GOP base. “There is a sense of ‘don’t mess with the sleeping beast, as much as possible,’” says another senior House GOP aide.

This comes after Congress reached new lows in productivity in 2012. So far fewer than 60 bills have been signed into law this session. If Congress continues at this pace, it will be the least productive of any in the past 40 years. This presents a risk to the don’t-rock-the-boat strategy. If doing something represents a risk, so too does doing nothing. The only thing voters may hate more than specific pieces of legislation is the complete lack of any action at all.

An earlier version of this article misstated Eric Cantor’s congressional title. He is the House majority leader, not the minority leader.