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House Overview|By David Wasserman, October 3, 2013
A back-bencher freshman from the mountains of Western North Carolina would seem an unlikely central figure in the first government shutdown in 17 years, but the saga of freshman GOP Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11) pretty much tells the story of this crisis in a nutshell.

Until 2012, the notoriously competitive 11th CD was represented by former pro quarterback-turned-Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, who compiled a middle-of-the-road voting record and gained popularity back home for his willingness to work with Republicans. Shuler even survived the 2010 GOP wave comfortably, winning 54 percent of the vote.

But in 2011, North Carolina Republicans used their new-found legislative majority and redistricting authority to carve craft-brewing and locavore-liberal Asheville out of the 11th CD. Under the new lines, Obama's 2008 share fell from 47 percent to 40 percent, and the seat's Cook Partisan Voter Index (PVI) score rose from R+6 to R+13. Rather than run a race uphill both ways, Shuler retired.

Enter Meadows, a real estate investor who relocated to North Carolina from Florida in 1986 and had no prior experience in elected office. Meadows pumped $255,000 of his own money into the primary and in June 2012, promised a GOP crowd that "We'll send [President Obama] back to Kenya, or wherever it is."

Meadows won the primary easily, playing up his social conservatism in ads. In the November general election, Meadows underperformed GOP nominee Mitt Romney by four points. Under the old lines, that might have given the seat to Democrats, but under the new lines Meadows prevailed with 57 percent of the vote.

How, then, did a freshman like Meadows successfully pressure Speaker John Boehner and others in the GOP leadership to pursue a risky strategy of linking keeping the government open with "defunding" health care reform by circulating a letter signed by 79 others?

As it turns out, there are a lot more House Republicans like Meadows than there are like Boehner. Just 37 of today's 232 House Republicans like Boehner - or 16 percent - were around for the last government shutdown in 1995-1996.

Meanwhile, 111 House Republicans like Meadows - or 48 percent - were first elected after President George W. Bush left office, mostly by running against not only Democrats but their own party's leadership on spending issues.

There are also a lot more signatories on Meadows's letter - 80 - than the approximately 20 GOP members (as of the Huffington Post's latest whip count) who have gone on the record to support a "clean" continuing resolution. And that's why GOP leadership finds itself in a box.

What It Means for 2014

Just three days into the shutdown, it doesn't take rocket science to figure out which party is worse for wear. A Quinnipiac poll showed opposition to shutting down the federal government over Obamacare at 72 percent to 22 percent, and a CBS News poll showed disapproval of the tactic at 72 percent to 25 percent.

In both polls, Republican voters were badly split over the tactic; in the Quinnipiac poll independents opposed the GOP's maneuver 74 percent to 19 percent. In the CBS poll, 44 percent of all voters said Republicans were to blame for the shutdown, just 35 percent blamed President Obama. In the Quinnipiac poll, Democrats held a 43 percent to 34 percent edge in the generic congressional ballot, their largest of the cycle.

And, there are signs Republicans' hatred of Obamacare has driven them to distraction and caused them to miss a big political opportunity: in the Quinnipiac poll, 45 percent of voters favored the health care law while 47 percent opposed. But instead of talking about glitches in the open enrollment process, DC and the national media are consumed by the shutdown and fractures in the GOP.

The shutdown may be a much higher-stakes mirror image of the 2012 Wisconsin recall: voters were skeptical and badly split over GOP Gov. Scott Walker's reforms, but they were turned off by the Democratic tactic of forcing a recall election. Now, Republicans are pursuing their base's policy objectives by employing a much more consequential and toxic strategy.

The shutdown has given a shred of possibility to the warning one senior Democratic legislator gave us last year: "Democrats can't win the House, but Republicans can lose it." The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza dubbed the 80 Meadows letter-signers as the "Suicide Caucus," portraying them as drinking not just tea but hemlock.

It's hard to remember the last time the GOP's brand wasn't abysmal. Yet, Democrats' problem for 2014 has always been: how do you get voters to focus blame exclusively on the House GOP rather than the White House? That task has proven exceedingly difficult for the party in the White House in the past.

In 1996, after the last shutdown presided over by Speaker Newt Gingrich, Democrats picked up nine House seats, but fell short of a majority. In 1998, after the House GOP took the unpopular step of impeaching President Clinton, Democrats picked up five seats, but once again fell short of the majority. Could this time be different?

This crisis is indeed different, but not necessarily in a way that guarantees Democrats will gain the majority, or even gain seats.

In the short term, this crisis gives House Democrats a badly needed message, will certainly aid candidate recruitment and fundraising at a critical juncture in the election cycle, and puts Republicans in several marginal seats on the defensive. But there still aren't enough GOP seats in Toss Up and Lean Republican combined to get Democrats to 218 seats.

The array of districts Republicans represent is far less appetizing to Democratic targeters than it was in the 1990s, and the timing of this crisis is tricky: if Republicans find any way out of this box before the end of the year, will Democrats still get traction by blaming them for a shutdown? Or, will health care implementation cause more problems for Democrats throughout 2014?

Over the next few weeks and months, it will be most interesting to see whether polls not only continue to give Democrats a large and consistent (seven points or more) generic congressional ballot lead, but start to show individual GOP incumbents suffering repercussions.

Districts Drive Gridlock

As a result of both redistricting and a huge sorting-out of voters and seats, today's House Republican Conference bears little resemblance to that of 1995-1996, other than 37 members and the word "shutdown."

It's fairly easy to understand why today's House Republicans are likelier to play to a primary audience and Heritage Action than be bullied into submission by Democrats and President Obama. Consider these statistics:

- In 1995, 79 House Republicans (33 percent) came from districts won by Clinton in 1992. Today, just 17 House Republicans (seven percent) hail from districts won by Obama in 2012.

- In 1995, there were 44 Republicans sitting in Democratic-leaning seats, according to the Cook Partisan Voter Index. Today, there are just five Republicans sitting in Democratic-leaning seats.

- In 1995, fewer than a third of House Republicans (73) came from "very solid" districts with a PVI score of R+10 or more. Today, more than half (122) come from "very solid" districts.

House GOP: Why This Shutdown is Worse

District/Member Statistic '95-'96 House GOP '13-'14 House GOP
Total in GOP Conference 236 232
Members present for both '95-'96 & '13 shutdowns 37
Number in districts won by Clinton '92/Obama '12 79 17
Average two-party Clinton '92/Obama '12 share 46.6% 40.4%
Average Cook Partisan Voter Index (PVI) score R+7 R+11
Number in districts with Democratic PVI scores 44 5
Number in districts with PVI score of R+5 or more 131 181
Number in districts with PVI score of R+10 or more 73 122
Number in districts with PVI score of R+15 or more 25 61
Number in districts with PVI score of R+20 or more 12 24

But it's not just today's and yesterday's Republicans who are worlds apart. Check out the differences between the 80 Republicans who signed on to Meadows's hard line and the 20 Republicans who have said they would be willing to vote for a "clean" continuing resolution.

All but five of the 20 "clean CR" Republicans are from the Northeast: Reps. Devin Nunes (CA-22), Bill Young (FL-13), Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), Mike Simpson (ID-02), Erik Paulsen (MN-03), Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02), Jon Runyan (NJ-03), Leonard Lance (NJ-07), Peter King (NY-02), Michael Grimm (NY-11), Richard Hanna (NY-22), Jim Gerlach (PA-06), Patrick Meehan (PA-07), Mike Fitzpatrick (PA-08), Lou Barletta (PA-11), Charlie Dent (PA-15), Rob Wittman (VA-01), Scott Rigell (VA-02), Randy Forbes (VA-04), and Frank Wolf (VA-10).

Consider these electoral incentives:

- The average Meadows letter-signer won 65 percent of the vote in 2012, compared to 59 percent of the vote for the "Clean CR" backers.

- Obama drew an average of just 37 percent of the vote in the Meadows letter-signer districts, compared to 48 percent in the "Clean CR" caucus and 65 percent in Democrats' districts.

- The average Cook Political Report PVI score is R+14 in letter-signer districts, compared to R+4 in "Clean CR" districts and D+11 in Democratic districts.

- The average letter-signer district is 75.2 percent white, compared to 70.5 percent white for "Clean CR" backers and 50.4 percent for Democratic districts.

Alternate Universes within the House GOP, and the House

Measurement 80 Letter-Signers 20 for "Clean CR" House Average House Democrats
Average '12 GOP House nominee share 64.7% 58.6% 47.5% 28.8%
Average '12 Democratic House nominee share 31.2% 39.5% 49.6% 68.8%
Average Obama '12 share 31.7% 48% 51.5% 65.1%
Average Romney '12 share 61.2% 50.8% 46.9% 33.2%
Average Cook Partisan Voter Index (PVI) score R+14 R+4 EVEN D+11
Average Non-Hispanic White share 75.2% 70.5% 63% 50.4%
Average Hispanic/Latino share 10.8% 14.2% 16.9% 23%
Average African American share 9.2% 8.3% 12.1% 16.2%
Average Asian share 2.1% 4.7% 4.9% 7%
College degree-holding share over age 25 25.3% 32.4% 28.8% 30.3%
Median Age 38 39.3 37.3 36.4

What's the GOP's Way Out?

For Boehner to navigate his conference out of the ideological corner his party has boxed itself into (partially as a result of its strategy in 2012 redistricting), the key will be the 132 Republicans who haven't either signed onto the Meadows letter or voiced support for a "clean CR."

The problem is, even in the districts of these 132 Republicans - which sport an average PVI score of R+11 - any vote seen as "caving" or "folding" to Obama is automatically an invitation for a primary. Obama doesn't just have zero leverage in these seats, he has "negative" leverage.

Ultimately, Wall Street and the markets, as well as the severity of polling, are more likely to compel House Republicans into action than the president. Even so, it's impossible to predict for sure how this crisis's resolution will shape the 2014 midterms.

A good rule of thumb is that Democrats, by our estimates, would need to win the national House vote by at least seven points to win the barest possible majority of 218 seats. If generic ballot test polls show Democrats with consistent leads near the double digits, Republicans should start hearing alarm bells.

However, there is no guarantee that a large Democratic generic ballot lead will persist if and when the shutdown is resolved or throughout 2014. At multiple points this year, pundits have claimed the 2014 elections would be all about Lois Lerner and the IRS, Edward Snowden and the NSA, and other controversies du jour.

The shutdown looks like a game changer, but are independent voters so deeply angry that they will stand ready to punish House Republicans exclusively a year later? Or, will snafus with Affordable Care Act implementation neutralize the GOP's shutdown fiasco?

Another point to keep in mind: much as Democrats who voted against health care reform in 2009 took plenty of the losses in 2010, the House Republicans who are now distancing themselves from their party's risky strategy would also be the first line of defense if a miniature wave develops.