WASHINGTON — As voters in some states cast ballots Tuesday, warning signs flared for Tea Party forces and the Democratic Party about their prospects in the broader and more critical midterm elections precisely one year from now.
The staying power of the conservative movement that burst onto the scene four years ago was called into question in this year's marquee contests. Tea Party nemesis Chris Christie swept to a landslide re-election as governor in New Jersey, a case study in how more moderate Republicans can carry even Democratic-leaning states. Tea Party favorite Ken Cuccinelli lost a closer race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor in Virginia, a contest establishment Republicans thought they could have won with a more mainstream candidate.
Still, Democrats saw looming problems of their own on the horizon — not so much in returns from the off-year elections but in the roiling furor over the flawed rollout of the federal health care exchange. One key official, Marilyn Tavenner, was grilled at a Senate hearing Tuesday, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was slated to be back on the hot seat Wednesday at another hearing on Capitol Hill.
For yet another election, Obamacare seems to be emerging as the defining issue of 2014. This time, the controversy over the president's signature legislative achievement is gaining traction not as a result of Republican attacks but through administration fumbles.
"Certainly, other issues may rise and fall — but Obamacare is the constant that runs through this election," says Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a critic of the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who supports the law, warned Tavenner at Tuesday's hearing that enrollment snafus with the launch of the HealthCare.gov website last month had created a "crisis of confidence."
At stake next year is more than bragging rights. Republicans have their best shot in the foreseeable future to regain control of the Senate. Democrats harbor long-shot hopes of getting back a majority in the House of Representatives. Thirty-six states, including a half-dozen swing states in national elections, will elect governors.
And for the president, the 2014 elections will shape how ambitious his legislative agenda realistically can be for his final two years in office, how many congressional investigations he is likely to face, and the degree to which his presidency will have charted a new course for the Democratic Party or left it weaker.
The midterms are likely also to be a test for the Tea Party movement, which tapped voter outrage over passage of the Affordable Care Act to help Republicans gain control of the House in 2010.
REMEMBER THE SHUTDOWN?
To be sure, prognostication is a dangerous sport in politics.
A year ago, Obama scored a historic victory, becoming the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two presidential terms with more than 50% of the vote. Obama predicted then — inaccurately, as it has turned out — that his win would "break the fever" in Washington and persuade Republicans to cooperate on issues such as immigration.
Just a month ago, Democratic hopes for 2014 were buoyed when voters were inclined to blame Republican lawmakers for the 16-day government shutdown, driving approval ratings for the GOP to new lows. The non-partisan Cook Political Report then shifted the ratings on 15 House races, moving 14 of them in the Democrats' direction.
That was then.
"Democratic pols had been gleefully anticipating the negative impact the Republican Party would incur as a result of the recent government shutdown debacle," Charlie Cook wrote in a National Journal column Tuesday. "Now Democrats are shaking their heads over signs that much of the advantage they might have gained has been effectively neutralized" by Obamacare's problems.
Democrats not only are shaking their heads. Some are urging the administration to delay key deadlines in the health care law. At Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., urged Tavenner to put off penalties for consumers if the website wasn't working in December. Tavenner is administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the website for the federal health care exchange.
Eleven Democratic senators have endorsed an appeal by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire that the administration give consumers more time to sign up. The group has some common characteristics: Seven of the 11 are in potentially competitive re-election races next year, and one of the others is Michael Bennet of Colorado, who just happens to chair the Democrats' Senate campaign committee.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win control in the Senate. The two most endangered Senate Democrats running for re-election are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is likely to face Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, and Mark Begich of Alaska. The GOP also is favored to pick up seats where Democratic incumbents are retiring in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.
In the House, Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats to regain control.
The 36 gubernatorial races include contests in some of the states that play big roles in presidential elections, among them Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. On Monday, former Florida governor Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, announced he would seek his old job back, challenging Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
BEST CASE, WORST CASE
At a panel at the Brookings Institution think tank Tuesday discussing the 2014 midterms, not one of the academics and political analysts on the dais raised a hand when asked whether it's possible the Affordable Care Act could have enough of a turnaround to be an asset for Democratic candidates next year.
The best-case scenario for Democrats would be that the issue recedes, says Elaine Kamarck, a veteran of the Clinton White House. The worst case? "They don't fix the technical problems with the sites and the insurance companies use the law as an excuse to drop or change a lot of benefits," she says. "And people get really, really mad about it."
At the moment, the issue of Obamacare splits the electorate down the middle, surveys of voters as they left polling places showed. In Virginia, just under 50% supported the Affordable Care Act, just over 50% opposed it. Democrat McAuliffe got nine of 10 votes of those who supported it. Republican Cuccinelli got eight of 10 votes among those who opposed it.
The onslaught of negative news about the Affordable Care Act in the past week or so was one possible explanation analysts gave for a closer-than-expected race for Virginia governor. "Obamacare is a problem," Stu Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report said in a tweet. "It's an obviously conclusion from close VA results."
A series of deadlines will keep Obamacare in the news. The administration has promised to release enrollment numbers by Nov. 15; early indications are that they will be embarrassingly small. Obama has promised to fix the website by Nov. 30; a failure to fulfill that promise would intensify demands for delay.
The deadline to enroll for coverage that starts at the beginning of the year is Dec. 15. The deadline to enroll and avoid having to pay a penalty has been set at March 31.
By then, the midterm elections should be raging.