May 21 (Bloomberg) -- In a fast-shifting political landscape, Democrats are stumbling just as Republicans finally seem to be finding their footing.
Republican voters shunned Tea Party candidates in Tuesday’s primaries.
A scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs may leave Democrats vulnerable to a backlash from voters sympathetic to former troops.
And President Barack Obama is set to personally announce new greenhouse-gas regulations on power plants next month that coal-state Republicans will use to portray Democrats as job killers.
That’s all bad news for Democrats in advance of November’s midterm election that will determine just how difficult it will be for Obama to accomplish anything in his final two years in office.
Reports of covered-up delays at VA facilities may be a particularly potent issue, said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“This is a major political problem that will make Benghazi look like a piece of cake,” Rieckhoff said.
Republicans are expected to retain their House majority, which currently stands at 233-199, while the two parties are competing fiercely for control of the Senate. The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan prognosticator of congressional elections, projects that if Democrats and Republicans won all the Senate races leaning in their direction, each party would control 46 seats in the chamber, while eight races are ranked in a “toss-up” category.
Noting the field of Republican candidates who emerged from Tuesday’s primaries, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, said the GOP’s election outlook is “getting better every day.”
McMorris Rodgers said the VA’s issues will hurt Obama’s allies in congressional races if he doesn’t fix them soon.
The treatment of veterans is important to voters, she said, because “it’s how we show our gratitude” to men and women who served in the military.
The VA allegations are quickly becoming part of an election-year narrative as Republicans seek control of the Senate in November and paint Democrats as unreliable on military issues ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.
While the scandal reflects decades of mismanagement and are the responsibility of Republicans and Democrats alike, Rieckhoff said Obama will face the brunt of it simply because he is the president. Fellow Democrats are likely to feel the effects disproportionately by extension, he said.
“When all the people go home to campaign this summer, where are they going to go? Veterans halls,” Rieckhoff said.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio; Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, seen as a potential 2016 presidential hopeful, are among those questioning Obama’s handling of the VA controversy.
“It continues to compound this narrative that President Obama is a disconnected, slow-to-respond leader who has a hard time with bureaucracy,” Rieckhoff said. “But I think at the same time, Republicans like John McCain were not aggressive on this issue until recently either.”
Speaking publicly at the White House today, Obama said the investigation into the VA allegations shouldn’t become “another political football.”
“This entire issue has morphed from fixing what’s wrong and holding people accountable into something political,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “It’s very frustrating to any veterans’ organization.”
Davis declined to predict if the controversy will hurt Obama and Democrats heading into the midterms, or whether the problems are emblematic of Obama’s administration or of the VA historically.
“We don’t do politics,” he said. “We share the same sense of urgency to fix what’s broken, to hold folks accountable where needed and to maintain the faith veterans have in their VA.”
After Obama’s remarks, McCain issued a terse statement saying while Obama “finally saw fit to speak about” the scandal, “his remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans’ health care system.”
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said Obama is acting to resolve the VA’s issues and that Republicans risk overplaying their hand if they turn it into campaign fodder.
“The Administration understands that it needs to treat this issue as a three-alarm fire and they have dispatched a key fix-it man, Rob Nabors, to the scene. We need to address this matter immediately,” Van Hollen said. “Nobody should try to fan the political flames to exploit our veterans for political purposes.”
On Tuesday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell used coal to pivot from his just-won primary to a general-election contest against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, whom he is trying to portray as a champion of President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between a candidate who puts Harry Reid in charge and Harry Reid himself,” McConnell said. “A vote for my opponent is a vote for a guy who says coal makes you sick.”
The Obama administration’s regulation of the coal industry -- including a sweeping new rule scheduled for release on June 2 -- has ironically handed the president’s chief Senate antagonist a compelling campaign issue.
In 19 coal counties, McConnell, running in a competitive primary, won a higher percentage of the Republican vote than Lundergan Grimes, who didn’t face serious opposition, won of the Democratic vote, according to an analysis by McConnell’s campaign.
“It’s a big damn deal. It’s a voting deal. It’s fundamentally changed the electorate in coal areas,” McConnell senior adviser Josh Holmes said of coal regulations. Grimes’ deflated victory margins in coal areas show that “nobody buys the spin,” Holmes said.
While some Democratic strategists argue that Grimes, who has been a vocal opponent of the administration’s coal policy, may use the issue to distance herself from the president in a Republican-leaning state, other members of the party say that the new rule could hamper Democratic hopefuls in Kentucky, West Virginia and other states where coal is a major source of jobs.
“I think it makes it difficult,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.
McConnell was one of several establishment Republican candidates who overcame challenges from the GOP’s Tea Party wing on Tuesday night, signaling a retrenchment from a string of 2010 and 2012 races in which inexperienced Republican candidates lost to Democrats in GOP-leaning states and House districts.
“We want to nominate candidates who can actually win in November,” McConnell said today.
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, said the voter enthusiasm that propelled the Tea Party movement in 2010 won’t be replicated this November. But, he acknowledged, there’s no denying that the GOP had a good night on Tuesday.
“In terms of non-Tea Party candidates, you have to concede that positions the Republicans is better,” Devine said.