ATLANTA — Both Republicans and Democrats are looking for fresh ways to pitch old arguments as they head into the final midterm election year of Barack Obama's presidency.
Eager to capitalize as the president's job approval rating hovers in the low 40s, Republicans are looking to hammer the clumsy implementation of Obama's health care overhaul and bemoan an economy that, while improving, still grows too slowly. They're already painting Democrats as fiscally irresponsible underlings of an increasingly unpopular president whose government creates more problems than it solves.
Democrats say they'll run as the party of average Americans and paint Republicans as out-of-touch allies of the wealthy, with a stubborn streak that forced a partial government shutdown and still prevents practical solutions for national problems. They're advocating populist positions like a minimum wage increase and an end to tax breaks for energy companies, and they're already reminding voters of Republicans' struggle to connect with women, non-whites and younger Americans. They're also looking to exploit the rift between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans.
Republicans hold the House majority, and Democrats control the Senate; so each side wants to reclaim a second chamber to end the Capitol Hill divide that has largely resulted in gridlock for the past three years. Also at stake are a majority of governors' seats, which control key policy decisions around the country and will help shape the landscape for the 2016 presidential election.
Leaders and strategists from each party insist they'll have fresh twists to the health care fight now entering its fourth year. Since much of the health care law takes effect in 2014, voters will be reacting to actual outcomes rather than just political hyperbole from either side.
"Obamacare is in absolute chaos," wrote Republican Senate campaign spokesman Brad Dayspring in his year-end review. "Vulnerable Democratic incumbents and candidates ... can't keep their own spin straight."
Republicans have enjoyed the technical struggles of the federal online exchanges where customers can attempt to buy coverage. But perhaps the best gift for the GOP: Insurers dropping tens of thousands of policy holders and offering them more comprehensive — and expensive — coverage despite Obama's explicit promise in 2010 that "if you like your plan, you can keep it."
That promises to be an acute issue for several Senate Democrats — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — who are running for re-election for the first time since voting for the health care law in 2010.
Many Democrats concede that the president's 2010 promise could be a millstone. But they counter that Republicans' core argument, particularly from their most conservative candidates, is for outright repeal: House Republicans, including many running for key Senate seats, have voted more than 40 times to scrap the entire law.
"Everything we see tells us that voters want to improve the law, not repeal it," said Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who chairs his party's congressional campaign committee. Indeed, a Gallup Poll in December showed that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the law, but just 32 percent support repeal.
As important for Democrats: Most of the 32 percent are Republicans. The poll found that two-thirds of GOP voters want the entire law gone. That pushes GOP primary candidates to the extreme on the issue, Israel argues, playing into the more general Democratic argument that Republicans' are out of step. A proposed minimum wage increase — to more than $10 per hour — could become a defining part of that argument. And Israel said his caucus will push votes to end corporate tax breaks like those for oil and gas companies.
"This election is going to be about who's got your back," Israel said. "Republicans continue to show they have the back of powerful special interests. Democrats have the back of the middle class."
The ongoing budget debate could be the wild card. The Senate's Democratic budget chief, Patty Murray of Washington, and her House counterpart, Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, crafted a spending deal in early December. Conservative groups assailed the plan for insufficient spending cuts, prompting Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders to lash out at tea party backed critics of the deal, which easily passed both the House and Senate.
There'll be another vote to increase the nation's borrowing limit in February or March, perhaps setting up a replay of the fall showdown when GOP conservatives forced a partial government closure with their failed attempt to defund Obama's health care overhaul.
Republican strategist Chip Lake in Georgia called the fall GOP gambit "a defining moment in our party" that set the stage for the Ryan-Murray agreement and Boehner pushing back at internal party critics. "We've always navigated this divide," Lake said, "but you're going to see it play out very visibly over the next year."
Arch-conservative GOP voices insist the hard line is the right path. "Republicans won big in 2010 because people understood where they stood on things like Obamacare," said Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks PAC, which has helped elect tea party clarions like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "I think Republicans will do well in 2014 if they similarly make clear they are for individual liberty and constitutionally limited government."
Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed that, even with Obama's victory, a narrow majority of Americans thought the government was doing too much. Yet polls from the fall suggested voters, particularly independents, blamed Republicans for the partial shutdown, and Israel said any repeat will help Democrats.
The president's party usually loses seats at the six-year mark of an administration, and the midterm electorate often tilts toward the GOP, as Democrats have more difficulty turning out more casual voters — particularly younger and minority citizens — who favor them in presidential election years.
Facing those historical headwinds, Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats to regain control of the House, with all 435 seats up. Democrats say they're targeting about 60 seats, while the GOP believes the competitive number is considerably lower. Republicans must net six new Senate seats — out of 35 on the ballot — to regain control of the upper chamber. Democrats are defending 21 seats, including several in states Obama lost. Republicans have a similar challenge in governor's races, where the 22 seats they're defending include several in states Obama won twice — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, among them. Democrats are defending 14 governor's seats. Republicans hold a 29-21 advantage nationally.