WASHINGTON — Voters may not see the yard signs, but the 2014 election campaign is well underway.
Congress is taking “test votes” that are more props for future TV ads than serious governing. Interest groups are raising millions to buy the TV ads that will flood the airwaves next fall. And potential candidates are deciding whether to run.
“There’s already a narrative being written,” said Janine Parry, the director of the Arkansas Poll, a state with one of the key battlegrounds next year that will determine which party controls the Senate.
Act I is being written on the floors of the Senate and the House of Representatives, where Congress is voting on partisan political manifestos that have little chance of becoming law but very great chances of being used for or against the people who cast the votes.
Last week, for example, the House took its 41st vote aimed at diluting the 2010 health-care law, knowing that such measures will go nowhere in the Democratic-run Senate. The House also voted Aug. 2, largely along party lines, to keep the Internal Revenue Service from enforcing or implementing the law. That, too, has no chance of getting past the Senate or President Barack Obama.
Already, the Republicans’ campaign committee has launched a series of ads targeting Democrats who vote against the defunding or repeal efforts. One ad against Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., claims that he “voted to keep the scandal-ridden IRS in charge of enforcing Obamacare.”
Other votes in the weeks to come on such hot-button issues as health care, taxes and spending will be used for and against candidates in ads. They’re a useful fundraising tool: Elect us and we’ll protect your interests. There are also candidates who may yet decide to run, as a protest of how incumbents are voting.
“The message to House Republicans is simple: Keep your promises ... or get ready for challenges from principled conservatives back home,” said Brent Bozell, the president of ForAmerica, a conservative group.
One vote filled with political implications didn’t happen, at least not yet.
Congress was expected to vote on Obama’s request to authorize a military strike against Syria, with such an action highly unpopular among nearly every political and demographic group. Such votes would have been alluring fodder for challengers. Conservatives could blast Republicans if they backed Obama. Liberals who also were eagerly railing against the plan could criticize Democrats.
War votes have a history of haunting political ambition. In 2002, then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., voted to authorize President George W. Bush to wage war in Iraq, a vote that at the time looked politically popular. Just a few days ago, though, he told a television interviewer he’d been opposed to Bush’s decision.
Votes clearly can have political consequences. They guide ratings by interest groups that inform voters and help candidates raise money.
They also pose risks. Taking too strident a position might ward off a primary challenge now, then backfire if conditions change.
Take Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, faces a tough challenge from Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, a conservative favorite. Cotton is proud of his staunch opposition to the health care law, boasting that “it’s clear that Obamacare is every bit the disaster Arkansans feared it would be.”
But what if the law requiring nearly everyone to obtain coverage next year proves to be popular? “The risk is that Re publicans overplay their hand,” Parry said.
Behind the scenes, potential candidates are making decisions about their futures that could make or break races.
When Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., decided to retire after six terms, Democrats hoped that popular former Gov. Brian Schweitzer would run, win and hold the seat. He declined to run, Republican Rep. Steve Daines is expected to enter the race and Montana is now viewed as a likely Republican pickup.
Democrats also lost a strong candidate in South Dakota, where former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said she wouldn’t seek to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. As someone who’d run and won statewide, she would have been a formidable candidate to hold the seat in an otherwise Republican-leaning state.
Republicans have had their own setbacks.
In Michigan, Republican Reps. Mike Rogers and Dave Camp said they wouldn’t seek the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, costing the GOP potentially strong challengers to take a seat the Democrats have held since 1979.
More heartening to Republicans are the decisions made by hopefuls that they’ll run.
Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said he’d challenge Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., decided to give up the House seat she’s held for seven terms in a bid to take the Senate seat of Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who’s retiring. Capito’s House district covers a third of the state, and she won it with 70 percent of the vote in the last election.
Democrats have their own boasts.
Two potentially strong Senate candidates, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, decided to engage in long-shot, but winnable, battles.
Unusually big money is fueling these early battles. Outside interest groups have poured more than $1.1 million into Kentucky and $1 million into Arkansas.
The big money not only helps establish challengers as serious candidates, it also allows them to begin planting doubts about the incumbents in the public mind. The public may not be zeroing in on the races just yet, but the seed money is being firmly planted.
As independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg put it, “This early stuff can matter a lot.”