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The GOP House majority is in danger. But it doesn't expect a shutdown to take it away

Democrats attack House Republicans as being dysfunctional and distracted. But past government shutdowns have shown voters quickly turn their attention elsewhere.
Kevin McCarthy holds the gavel after he was elected House speaker at the U.S. Capitol
Kevin McCarthy holds the gavel after he was elected House speaker at the U.S. Capitol, on Jan. 7.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

Some of the most vulnerable GOP lawmakers have sounded the alarm that a government shutdown could pose a threat to their slim, five-seat majority in the House.

“This is the kind of tough situation. … You’re putting one of those swing seats in California and New York into trouble. And we just can’t have that. We’ve got to win those seats and then take three or four more seats back and have a bigger majority going into 2025,” Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Tuesday morning.

But behind the scenes, Republicans believe voters may yet forgive them for not funding the government in time to avert a shutdown. Even as they face early Democratic campaign ads criticizing battleground-district members over the chaos in Washington, Republicans take heart that there's more than a year until November 2024, and a track record that shows voters quickly move on to other things after such shutdowns. They may still have tough elections, but they don't expect the shutdown to play a major role in them.

“We’re still so far away from next year’s election,” one Republican strategist told NBC News. 

“While we expect short-term political pain, you know, voter’s minds — our memories are short,” the strategist added.

Democratic-aligned groups have targeted vulnerable Republican House lawmakers in TV ads over the shutdown.

“Just as the middle class is getting back on its feet, Juan Ciscomani wants to pull the rug out from under us. He sided with MAGA Republicans who threatened to shut down the government,” says a narrator in one ad targeting first-term Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., who represents a district President Joe Biden narrowly won in 2020.

“Republicans have shown time and time again that they are incapable of governing. The threat of a government shutdown is another perfect example of how dysfunctional Republicans are for the American people,” said C.J. Warnke, the communications director for the flagship House Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC focused on electing Democrats to Congress.

Two Republicans in swing seats — Reps. Marc Molinaro and Mike Lawler of New York — say they are open to almost anything to avoid a government shutdown, including working with Democrats and going around Speaker Kevin McCarthy to approve a short-term funding measure.

Whether or not they actually help end the government funding impasse, such vocal statements by Molinaro and Lawler, along with those of fellow first-time Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, R-N.Y., and other vulnerable House Republicans may help them curry favor with voters, even if a shutdown does occur. 

"We had a meeting late last week, probably Friday, in my office, with some Biden-district Republicans who are very set on making sure this country and our government does not shut down," D’Esposito told C-SPAN on Wednesday.

"It is very important to us. This country cannot afford to be shut down," D'Esposito said.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., whose district Biden won in 2020, echoed D'Esposito.

"We don't want to shut down, so I would do what we can. We should prevent a shutdown. That’s the bottom line," Bacon told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.

“They’re communicating directly with the voters in our districts right now. So, you know, that’s a strategy and they’re getting ahead of any potential political attacks. And by doing so, they’re putting themselves above the mudslinging,” the GOP strategist said.

The idea that swing-district Republicans won't be as vulnerable to attacks about the shutdown a year from now is backed up by data from past government shutdowns, before the 2014 and 2018 elections.

In September 2013, the government shut down for 16 days under a Republican-led House. The following year, only three House Republican incumbents who sought re-election lost their general election races amid a GOP wave. At the same time, 10 incumbent House Democrats lost their general elections.

In January 2018, the government shut down for two days, again under a Republican-led House. That following November, 21 House Republican incumbents lost their seats in general elections.

There’s scant evidence, though, that voters punished these members solely for their role in the government shutdown. It was a wave election year for Democrats and widely seen as a referendum on the first two years of the Trump administration.

And, for the first time in more than a decade, a plurality of voters did not name the economy as their top concern in exit polling during the midterms.

Instead, voters cast their votes with health care and immigration front of mind.

For lawmakers like Molinaro, Lawler and the other freshman Republicans from swing districts in New York, strategists believe immigration will be a particularly salient issue for voters.

“You look at the migrant crisis in New York City. That is a great issue for our vulnerable New York members because they can’t deny that the border crisis is now everywhere in the United States. And [Democrats have] been put in such a pickle that it allows the New York swing district members to be the only face of reason in the state,” the Republican strategist said.

Still, Democrats see an opportunity to target swing-district Republicans by linking threats of a shutdown to the issues voters care about most.

“Voters obviously vote on kitchen-table issues, but I think the shutdown is an example of how Republicans are not prioritized on any of those types of things,” Warnke said.

One national Republican operative broadly dismissed these claims, reiterating that the shutdown could very well be just a short-term distraction.

“Is this a problem in the short term? Absolutely. Any day that we are talking about Joe Biden we are winning. Any day that we are threatening to shut down the government ... we are not winning,” the GOP operative said.

But the 2024 election is not happening in the short term — and Republicans hope any shutdown is well in the past by the time it does happen.