Voters May Blame Republicans for a Shutdown—but Not Punish Them

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It’s impossible to go more than 10 minutes on cable news or even one scroll on social media right now without confronting some version of the same argument: that the government shutdown provisionally slated to start this weekend is the fault of Republicans and voters will remember it. Republicans seemed resigned to being the heavies for a complete surrender of the political high road, and Democrats—perhaps over-confidently—think this is all gravy for them.

This all has echoes of a decade ago, almost to the day, when lawmakers in Washington stood ready to shut down the federal government in hopes of torpedoing the Affordable Care Act, A.K.A. Obamacare. And just like back then, Virginia’s off-year elections are just a few weeks away, and the shutdown may be heavy on voters’ minds when they go to the polls.

The legend in Washington has been that the 2013 shutdown delivered Virginia Democrats a blowout. Yet the history is not as clear-cut as the rhetoric would suggest. In fact, it might give Republicans in nearby Washington justified reasons to barrel forward on the haphazard path they are already on.

Just like now, Congress back then was split between a Republican-led House and a Democratic-led Senate where Democrats lacked the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Heading toward shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who often seemed more focused on setting up his bid for president than governing, read Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor as part of his 21-hour effort to delay any dealmaking. (For the historical record, it was not technically even a filibuster because that day’s legislative business was already over and Cruz was blocking no live votes. Serious mainstream Republicans rolled their eyes in disbelief.)

The shutdown lasted for 16 days. At its peak, 850,000 workers stayed home and another million had to report to work while hoping they’d get back pay at some point. Per one estimate, the U.S. economy lost a whopping  $24 billion. Cruz and Co.’s long-shot hopes that closing national parks and not collecting owed taxes would drive Obama to pull a U-turn on the central piece of his legacy never materialized. Even the leaders at the time admit today that it was a bungle.

This time we are not likely to be so lucky as to suffer through just a partial shutdown. Not one of the 12 must-pass spending bills is finished, and that includes the typically easy-peasy defense and foreign operations spending bills. The troublemakers are getting their turn in the spotlight and those accustomed to power are finding they have less than they imagined. Pollsters are quietly warning that Republicans’ standing in Gallup is exactly where it was right before the 2013 shutdown, at 38% favorable. When the 2013 shutdown began, the GOP’s favorability plummeted a full 10 points to 28%, the lowest number on record for either party to that point since Gallup started asking the question in 1992.

This is where Virginia comes in, as its Nov. 7 election is looming large in the minds of those looking for clues as to which party is better positioned going into 2024.

Virginia Republicans head into Election Day with a three-seat majority in the House of Delegates and Democrats enjoy a four-seat majority in the Senate—meaning small margins matter, not just for Virginians but for national strategists looking for lessons from a shutdown.

A decade ago, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell was coming off a chance to become 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate and was clear-eyed about both his political future and what the legacy cost would be for a messy off-year election that historically punishes the party that won the White House the year before.

“My Republican friends have got to understand there’s no way on earth that the President and the United States Senate are going to vote to defund Obamacare,” McDonnell told reporters in Richmond, Va., ahead of the shutdown. “Look, I am no fan at all of Obamacare. ... But it is absolutely wrong to shut down the government.”

Contrast that now, with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin trying to split the difference: blaming President Joe Biden for a lack of leadership and urging patience as fellow Republicans sort out their internal differences. Here is another Virginian considering the national stage, and he knows the base of the party won’t easily tolerate full-throated dissent against those intent on forcing a shutdown, even if they don’t have any specific demands.

Outside of D.C., Virginia trails only California in the number of federal jobs, and the state’s military bases employ 130,000 active-duty personnel and another almost 26,000 reservists, putting it behind only California and Texas in the number of men and women in uniform. Add in all of D.C.’s federal workers who commute from Virginia, and you can see why the shutdown would be felt there more strongly than other states.

In popular lore, Virginia’s 2013 election shifted over the shutdown. The Democratic nominee for Governor, Terry McAuliffe, was polling 5 points ahead of Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP’s nominee for the top gig, on the final days before the shutdown. By the time the shutdown had ended, the same pollsters at Roanoke College had McAuliffe up 15 points. Cuccinelli went all-in on holding the conservative line and lost by 2.5 points.

Wait, 2.5 points? Wasn’t Virginia supposed to be a Democratic blow-out because of the shutdown? Apparently not. Even in the state legislature, Republicans held steady at 67 seats in the 100-seat House of Delegates.

It was an early sign that anger over a largely pointless shutdown is not destined to necessarily last long. Nationally, House Republicans picked up 13 net seats in the 2014 midterms and Senate Republicans picked up nine, just one year after the lights went back on and Cruz shelved Dr. Seuss.

All of which is to say: voters today may be rightly blaming Republicans for the looming shutdown that seems as stupid as it is unavoidable. But memories are short in politics, a new outrage is always around the corner, and even immediate consequences, like the one in Virginia back in 2013, can ignore national trends as long as there’s a stronger competing story. Doubt it? Look at how much money is being spent in Virginia on ads about abortion. It’s that potent issue, and not appropriations, that both parties think can win them these state legislative races. Party elders on both sides of the aisle will be watching closely for signs that their thinking on that is right over the next month—and maybe the year that follows.

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