Scandals Rousing Republican Party Base; May Impact 2014 Elections

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WASHINGTON, DC – Even though he’s done running for office, President Barack Obama has a lot at stake in next year’s midterm elections. And a trio of scandals that have ignited over the past week that have forced the White House to play defense have the strong possibility of hurting the president and his party at the polls in November 2014.

“Even though I’ve run my last race, I’m going to be working as hard as I can to make sure that their vision is one that is dominant on Capitol Hill,” said the president, speaking about Democratic congressional leaders, Monday night at a party fundraiser in New York City.

At stake in next year’s midterms is the Democrats’ 55-45 majority in the Senate and the Republicans’ majority in the House of Representatives (the Democrats need to win back 17 seats to regain control of the chamber). While the 2014 elections are a year and a half away, the current headlines seem to be rousing the Republican Party’s base.

Those three headlines are the renewed controversy over last September’s attack in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead, and the new controversies from just the past few days over the Internal Revenue Service targeting of some tea party organizations and other groups focused on curbing federal government’s spending, and the Justice Department’s secret collection of telephone records for reporters and editors at The Associated Press.

“There’s no question that the recent news will embolden conservatives and Republicans ahead of the midterm elections. These news stories fall right in line with the skepticism and criticism that many Republicans have had of the Obama Administration for years,” says Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

And it may not just be turnout that’s impacted. Candidate recruitment may be as well.

“I think the recent news has to give potential Democratic candidates pause, particularly if they are thinking about running in Republican-leaning districts,” adds Gonzales.

Mainstream and grassroots Republicans say the controversies are providing an injection.

The IRS scandal is breathing new life into the tea party movement, says Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization which has been a key player in the rise of the movement.

“You’ve seen a lot more energy and judging from the activity on the social networks, people are pissed off about this,” Kibbe told CNN National Political Correspondent Jim Acosta.

Republican strategist Brian Walsh agrees.

“There is no question that the growing scandals surrounding the Obama White House are lighting a fire under the Republican base which in turn helps both recruitment and fundraising,” says Walsh, former communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Whether it’s IRS thuggery, spying on news outlets or putting government bureaucrats in charge of health care decisions, more and more Americans are rightfully concerned with the big hand of government in their lives and that’s a real problem for Democrats heading into 2014.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee is fundraising off the Benghazi controversy.

“We’re going after Obama on Benghazi. Help us fight him now,” says an NRCC email to supporters, which asks for contributions. The group also sent out an accompanying petition on Friday, which the NRCC says was a record breaking day for traffic on their website.

The president Monday argued that GOP outrage over a changed set of talking points related to September’s attack in Benghazi is a political “side show,” asserting the tragedy was being used for political gain by his rivals.

On the IRS controversy, Obama vowed to hold the agency accountable if the reports of political targeting are proved true.

“If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous. And there’s no place for it,” Obama told reporters. “And they have to be held fully accountable.”

Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt, who was national press secretary for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, says Republicans may be overplaying their hand on Benghazi.

“Republicans are getting dangerously close to overreach — at times last week’s hearings looked like a transparent political exercise to see how many times they could jam Secretary Clinton’s name into a sentence.”

And LaBolt says that the current controversies will be superseded in the minds of most voters by what he calls obstruction by the GOP.

“It’ll be a tall order for this Republican Congress which has done nothing but obstruct the agenda the American people voted for in November to make the case that they’d do a better job governing.”

President George W. Bush faced setbacks in the first two years of his second term, from the federal government’s lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina, the defeat of his push for Social Security reform, and worsening situation in the war in Iraq.

As for actual scandals, the Valerie Plame/CIA leak controversy unfolded throughout 2005, culminating with Scooter Libby’s indictment in October of that year, and the 2004 Bush reauthorization of the warrantless wiretapping program dominated headlines at the end of 2005 and early 2006 when it became public.

The setbacks and scandals of the first two years of Bush’s second term definitely had an impact in the 2006 midterms, when the Democrats won back control of the House and Senate. The big question now is whether the current second term president will suffer a similar fate.

By Paul Steinhauser

CNN’s Research Director Robert Yoon contributed to this story.

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