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With sequestration looming, capitalizing on the blame begins

By   /   February 28, 2013  /   No Comments

Part 6 of 11 in the series The Sequester

By Carten Cordell │ Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA — Now that the stud poker game of sequestration is about to close another round, the impact of spending cuts is not the only thing being debated in Washington, D.C.

The question: Who won?

The White House and the Republicans have raised and re-raised each other, bluffed and folded hands, but the prize being fought over on Capitol Hill as the country goes careening toward the so called “fiscal cliff” is who can shift the blame to win big in the 2014 midterm elections.

U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., (center) could face a tough reelection battle in 2014 if Democrats try to pin the sequestration blame on the GOP. (Photo by S.K. Vemmer/Department of State)

U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., (center) could face a tough reelection battle in 2014 if Democrats try to pin the sequestration blame on the GOP. (Photo by S.K. Vemmer/Department of State)

So both sides are working last-minute deals to check and recheck one another, trying to out-position the other’s narrative and ensure that if sequestration does happen, it’s the other guy left holding the bag.

“The tricky part is nobody thought the government shutdown under Bill Clinton was going to harm Republicans, and it did,” said Craig Brians, associate chair of the department of political science at Virginia Tech. “It only did because of how the Clinton administration was able to frame it in a very damaging way for Republicans.

“The question is, Is the Obama administration skillful enough to do that? And I think if you look at the first term, you can probably say that’s unlikely.”

Next year, 35 Senate seats will be up for grabs, as well as all 435 seats in the House, where Democrats need to pick up at least 33 wins to upend the GOP stronghold. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has predicted 69 seats as roughly competitive in 2014, but it projects that while Democrats may pick up some traction in the House, a full-scale takeover seems unlikely.

This is compounded by the fact that of the 10 previous presidents who have faced a second midterm election, only Clinton has ever gained seats in the House, adding four in 1998.

So the fight will be to target districts that take the biggest hits in the sequestration battle and shift the blame for those hits onto a vulnerable incumbent. For Virginia, the biggest bull’s-eye may be the 2nd District and GOP Rep. Scott Rigell.

Rigell’s district includes Virginia Beach and Northampton and Accomack counties, areas that could be affected by the defense spending cuts sequestration would bring. The two-term congressman was able to fight off a challenge from Democrat Paul Hirschbiel last year, winning more than 53 percent of the vote.

But Rigell’s district was carried by President Obama in the past two presidential elections, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted Virginia’s 2nd District as one of its Red to Blue targets in 2012, making it a likely battleground next year.

Geoff Skelly of Sabato’s Center for Politics said Rigell will have to balance the sequestration issue in the campaign over an electorate with razor-thin margins.

“The fact that Obama won that district makes it an obvious target,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with how each individual campaign handles the issue. I know that Rigell has kind of positioned himself as more moderate-leaning, which makes sense, given the context of his district.”

Brians said members of Congress face a dilemma in the sequestration fight because they have to justify party expectations alongside the spending projects expected in their districts, known as earmarks.

“There is just a constant stream of, ‘We’re bringing the bacon home,’ and this puts, potentially Republicans, in a tough position,” he said. “On the one hand, they are trying to say, ‘We are helping the district. We are protecting the Department of Defense and defense jobs, and yet, we are also not working with the president because you don’t like him.’ That’s a tricky line to walk.”

Northern Virginia Democrats Jim Moran and Gerald Connolly will also be up for re-election in 2014, but both defended their districts against two challengers last year, both Army colonels.

Despite not being projected to face a challenge, each incumbent discounted their recent opponents’ ability to serve in Congress because a lack of “sweat equity” and “public service” on Capitol Hill, comments that may resurface if defense cuts become a campaign issue.

So as time runs out on the sequestration clock, both sides are positioning themselves in case no deal is struck. If a bargain isn’t reached, it may be a question of where the buck will actually stop.

“I never make predictions about what legislative bodies might do or what voters might do,” Brians said. “But there has been so much of a game of chicken in this sequestration situation, unless somebody scores a big win, it doesn’t seem like things are going to be resolved on Friday.”

Contact Carten Cordell at carten@watchdogvirginia.org

Part of 11 in the series The Sequester

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