Too Early To Tell What Shutdown Means for Senate in 2014

Shutdown effects on GOP brand still unknown.

The partial government shutdown is already a campaign issue in some 2014 Senate races, including the contest between Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., left, and his presumptive challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
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The longer the government shutdown drags on, the higher the political stakes become for both political parties.

At this point it's impossible to know who will get the blunt of the blame for congressional gridlock. Both sides are forging ahead with independent messaging strategies. Republicans have been pushing mini-funding bills in what they say is an attempt to ease the pain of the government shutdown, while Democrats have been blasting Republicans for trying to dismantle Obamacare, a bill they argue was passed more than 3 years ago and has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

"No one is going to come out of this looking good," says GOP pollster Dan Judy.

[READ: Boehner: 'This Isn't Some Damn Game']

But in the 1990s, a 21-day shutdown ruined the Republican Party brand. That is a cost Republicans just cannot bear if they are going to win back the Senate in 2014.

As things stand now, Democrats are expected to be defending 21 seats come Election Day 2014, while Republicans are defending a smaller 14-seat map.

In a few of the races most important to the GOP, House Republicans such as Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and perhaps even Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., will be on the front lines against Democrats. In previous races, Cotton and Capito, have depended on the GOP base to win. In a statewide race, independents will play a bigger role.

If the House is blamed for a shutdown like it was in the 1990s, Democratic strategists say the House Republicans will be tied to a poison brand.

"There's no denying that from his very first month in Washington, Congressman Cotton has been a cheerleader for shutting down the government, and now Arkansas families are living with his irresponsible priorities," says Erik Dorey, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Pryor's, D-Ark., re-election campaign. "Just like most Arkansans, Mark Pryor is tired of the political drama, and he'll continue working with reasonable members of both parties to find common sense solutions that cut spending responsibly while protecting Social Security and Medicare, keep student loans affordable and give certainty to our farmers and rural families."

[READ: House Republicans Fight To Stop Obamacare Again]

Republican pollsters on the other hand are not so sure that the shutdown of 2013 will look anything like those of the 1990s.

"It still might end up killing us in 2014, but it is becoming harder and harder to predict because the old rules just don't apply anymore," Judy says.

Dave Winston, another GOP pollster, agreed it is still unclear whether the American people will reward the Republicans for fighting against Obamacare or hold them accountable for rallying against the health care law at the high cost of a government shutdown.

"The shutdown could dramatically help one party, but it is a lot like a game of 52 card pickup, you don't know what it is going to look like at this point," Winston says.

For Republicans looking to take back the Senate, a government shutdown is not standing in their way.

[READ: Ted Cruz and Rand Paul: A Tale of Two Shutdown Strategies]

"The election is over a year away and voters will have a lot of issues to weigh between now and then," says Chris Hansen, the campaign manager for Capito's campaign to win the seat held now by a retiring Democrat. "When it is time to cast a ballot, West Virginian's want someone who has a history of standing up for them. Congresswoman Capito is the only candidate in the race with a proven track record of standing up to President Obama and fighting back against his health care takeover, his out of control spending and his war on coal."

Congressional race expert Kyle Kondik argues that the with more than a year until the election, a shutdown just won't be the tipping point.

"These events are easily forgotten," Kondik says.

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  • A Government Shutdown Is Not the Tea Party's Last Stand
  • Government Shutdown Could Slam Right Into Debt Ceiling