The Ups And Downs Of The GOP Year

The last few days of 2013 have been some of the best of the year for the Republican Party, which came out on top in congressional races in a poll this week. NPR's political editor Ron Elving joins Linda Wertheimer for a look back at the GOP's rollercoaster political year, from the partial government shutdown to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, we'll take a look down the Mall and across the aisle at the Republican Party, which had a pretty tumultuous 2013. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving is here to give us the GOP's greatest hits of the past year. Ron, Happy New Year, almost.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Almost Happy New Year to you, too, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Let's start with some good news for the GOP. There is a new poll which was out yesterday. If you could vote today, would you vote for Republicans or Democrats and Republicans got a five-point lead.

ELVING: Yes, they did, 49 to 44, which is quite a reversal from October when they were done by eight points in the midst of the government shutdown. So most everyone is going to attribute this to the unpopular, rocky, whatever you want to call it, semi-disastrous rollout of the Obamacare program in the last couple of months that's really put a bruise on the Democrats brand much the way the government shutdown had put a bruise on the Republicans.

You could say the Republicans are ending 2013 on their highest note of the year.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: That's the best thing that has happened to them. Well, 2014 looms. How are they shaping up for the midterms?

ELVING: The midterms look good for Republicans. They will almost certainly hold control of the House. The Democrats would need nearly 20 seats in that takeaway. That's a big order and particularly because the president's party, in this case the Democrats, tends to lose seats in the midterms, not gain. On the Senate side, the Republicans are on the march. They need six seats to take back the majority in the Senate.

They may or may not get there, but the seats are out there to win. There are a lot of red states electing senators, some with incumbents like Louisiana and Arkansas, North Carolina where the Democrats got a struggle, others where there's a vacancy, say, in a Montana or a South Dakota.

WERTHEIMER: One of the big events of 2013, of course, was the government shutdown. Now, that was not so good for the Grand Old Party.

ELVING: No. And it illustrated the split between the two lobes of the current Republican brain. They have a governing party, if you will, some people call it the Establishment Party, but it's the party that is particularly interested in having office and making policy. And then they also have a populist sort of anti-government lobe. We refer to this sort of loosely as the Tea Party, although that probably suggests more structure and coherence than the Tea Party actually wants.

And in that part of the party, they were not interested in having another standard budget process that made government a little bigger and that did not reduce the deficit enough, even though this was probably a budget that most Republicans could have accepted. The Tea Party wing, if you will, the absolutists, also saw this as an opportunity to stop the implementation of Obamacare and they were willing to shut the government down, at least partially and temporarily, to keep Obamacare from taking effect.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now I wonder where the Republicans go in 2014, considering this kind of schism that they're experiencing. Do you think that perhaps indicates some trouble ahead?

ELVING: We saw a primary in Alabama this fall between a quite conservative Republican nominee who had held office, had been in the state legislature. He was challenged by a Tea Party challenger who had almost no resources at all when he began and in the end the conventional candidate won, but only by a few percentage points. We're going to see more primaries like that for the House and for the Senate for the Republicans leading up to a huge brawl over the 2016 presidential nomination that will really pit these two parts of the party against each other.

WERTHEIMER: Who will be the candidates that will emerge from that brawl?

ELVING: My guess is it will be someone who did not run in 2008 or 2012. It'll be one of the newer names: Chris Christie from New Jersey; maybe Jeb Bush attempting a comeback for his family; Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin; or maybe Rand Paul or Ted Cruz from the Senate or Marco Rubio from the Senate. Somebody who has not been out in the presidential lists before.

WERTHEIMER: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. Thanks very much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Linda.

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