WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans and Democrats have wasted little time trying to use the first federal government shutdown in a generation for political advantage ahead of next year's midterm elections, seizing on the plight of furloughed workers and shuttered government services to cast blame on each other.
A year out from Election Day and just days into the stoppage, the debate already is playing out in TV and radio ads in key congressional districts, newspaper editorials and fundraising pitches from campaign committees eager to pad their bank accounts early for 2014. And both sides are aggressively testing the political arguments they likely will try to make over the next year.
Republicans are trying to focus the nation's attention on President Barack Obama's health care law, which more Americans dislike than like. Republicans trying to derail or delay the law say it's Democrats who shut down the government by refusing to negotiate over the law.
"Instead of admitting Obamacare was a mistake, Democrats are insisting that Americans be forced into a government-run health care program they don't want," says a national television ad from the Senate Conservatives Fund, a GOP outside group.
Following Obama's lead, Democrats are telling voters that Republicans have been hijacked by extremists and the tea party, and have jeopardized the economy by trying to extract unprecedented demands before re-opening the government. They say if House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, can't control his flock, Republicans can't be allowed to control the House.
"Speaker Boehner doesn't have the guts to put a clean bill on the floor to fund the government," says an ad that a liberal group, MoveOn.org, is airing on cable television. "Why? Because he's afraid of the tea party."
At this point, polls show more Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown than Obama and other Democrats. A CBS News poll conducted after the shutdown began Tuesday shows 44 percent of Americans blame Republicans, compared to 35 percent for Obama and Democrats. Nearly 1 in 5 says both sides share the blame.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus brushes off the surveys, saying: "Governing by simply looking at daily tracking polls is probably not the right way to govern."
Some Republicans contend that as the shutdown drags on, the public will turn on Obama for refusing to negotiate on health care.
But Democrats are counting on this shutdown, like two that took place in the 1990s, to inflict damage on the Republican brand. They're hoping that could boost Democrats' prospects for reclaiming the House next year. Democrats need to gain 17 House seats for the majority in 2014, while Senate Republicans need to gain six seats to return to power.
Fueling the optimism: the Democratic National Committee said it raised $850,000 online in the 24 hours before the shutdown started — the party's best fundraising day since the 2012 election ended.
Martha McKenna, a former political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said all Democrats have to do is point out how average Americans have sacrificed paychecks, childcare and vacations during the shutdown. She argues that message will work in rural, conservative-leaning states.
"People are angry, they are frustrated and they are very well aware of how Republicans have taken this country to the brink," she said.
At the same time they're lobbing criticism at each other, Democrats and Republicans are trying to insulate themselves from attacks.
Republicans have pursued piecemeal legislation to re-open popular parts of government, like national parks and veterans services. They've also seized on Obama's assertion that he won't negotiate as evidence there's nothing more they can do. Obama signed legislation ensuring military members get paid during the shutdown, and his administration made provisions to allow veterans groups into the National World War II Memorial after the GOP used that issue to cudgel Democrats.
Meanwhile, outside groups allied with both parties are weighing in.
The Senate Conservatives Fund began airing national TV and radio ads targeting Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. That marked a change of course for the outside group, which traditionally has targeted Republicans it deems insufficiently conservative — including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who critics say has avoided pursuing a deal because he, too, faces a tea party challenge.
In the fight for control of the House, an outside Democratic group launched an ad Friday that shows footage of a baby crying while accusing Boehner of throwing a temper tantrum. House Majority PAC is also airing shutdown-themed ads against nine other Republicans it considers particularly vulnerable.
On the Republican side, the National Republican Congressional Committee is airing radio ads criticizing 10 House Democrats over the shutdown, saying they voted to protect health care subsidies for themselves and their staff. The list of targets reads like a catalog of the most endangered Democrats.
The shutdown has also become a significant issue in a competitive gubernatorial race in Virginia, which depends heavily on the federal government.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli accuses Democrat Terry McAuliffe of being part of Washington stubbornness that led to the shutdown, while McAuliffe is airing television ads linking Cuccinelli to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party Republican whom Democrats say has scared congressional Republicans out of compromising.
Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign following two shutdowns, said the only clear way out for Republicans is through some type of "grand bargain" that includes increasing the debt ceiling — another looming deadline Congress must soon meet.
"The lesson from the last shutdown was that Republicans never had a real endgame," Reed said. "It's appearing to be deja vu all over again."
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