Tea Party Rally June 2013
A Tea Party rally in Washington, June 2013. Reuters

In the 1990s, House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down the government in a budget showdown with President Bill Clinton, and their party ended up taking a huge hit for it politically. With Republicans threatening another shutdown at the end of the month, Democrats want to make sure the GOP again pays a price in 2014 for even flirting with shutting down the government.

Even if a shutdown doesn’t occur, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is attacking Republican challengers for supporting the idea.

Under pressure from the right, including groups like FreedomWorks and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, not to support any spending bills that fund the Affordable Care Act, a number of Republicans are calling for any spending bill introduced this month to defund health care reform -- which would result in a government shutdown. Democrats will seize on this as a vulnerability for Republican Senate candidates in 2014 that could ultimately help them maintain control of the upper chamber.

How? Because, in several close contests, Democratic incumbents are likely to face current GOP House members hoping to move up to the Senate. Besides what damage the GOP as a whole may suffer for its gambit, Republican Senate candidates may have to vote on the issue. They include Reps. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who are challenging vulnerable Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu, respectively.

The DSCC has gone in recent weeks after Cotton and Cassidy, both of whom have endorsed the idea of using the bill needed to fund the government past Sept. 30, called a continuing resolution, to defund the health care reform law. The Democratic-controlled Senate and White House would never allow such a bill, which would result in a government shutdown if House Republicans refused to pass a funding bill that included funding for the health care overhaul.

Cotton has been somewhat cagey about his position on shutting down the government, but his statements about the need to use any tools Republicans have to stop "Obamacare" make it seem he is willing to trigger a government shutdown over the issue. Still, he has not ruled out voting for a spending bill that includes funding for the health care law.

“I think that when we return from our August recess in September with our continuing resolution and then in October-November with the debt ceiling, those are important opportunities to strike another blow against Obamacare before that law takes effect. … Because those are two must-pass pieces of legislation, it gives us an opportunity to try to prevent Obamacare,” Cotton said on the conservative Hugh Hewitt radio show on July 30. In January, Cotton also expressed a willingness to shut down the government, this time over spending, saying Republicans “have to be” willing to shut down the government in order to “draw the line and say that we have a debt crisis.”

Cotton’s remarks from the Hewitt show, and similar ones, have received attention from the press in Arkansas, and gave the DSCC a neat avenue of attack against Cotton. In a series of press releases, the Hill committee highlighted the damage “Tom Cotton’s government shutdown” would do for seniors, students, small business, children, military families, people with disabilities, and homeowners in Arkansas.

When Cassidy signed onto a letter urging the Republican House leadership to get behind a continuing resolution that defunds the health care law, the DSCC pounced on him with a similar set of press releases. Though the letter doesn’t explicitly call for a shutdown, that would be the result of the strategy being pressed in the letter.

The issue could spill into Republican primaries across the country and help out Democratic candidates, including in Georgia, where the three Republican Senate hopefuls who are now in the House signed the letter as well.

“In most states, there are Republican primaries where you have establishment candidates fighting it out with tea party candidates,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the DSCC. “The whole shutdown battle is just more fuel to the fire in these primaries.”

Republicans, on the other hand, dispute that they would be responsible if the government shut down. “Instead of worrying about what Tom Cotton is doing, perhaps Senator Pryor should focus on doing his own job,” Brook Hougesen, press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an email, accusing Democrats of “manufacturing a crisis.”