This should terrify Republicans.
Look into Speaker John Boehner's exasperated eyes and think about how much he has suffered the last two years trying to contain his tea–crazy Republican caucus. Now double it. Then add an extra dose of Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. And then take away the ability to blame Harry Reid for the failure to get any Republican bills passed in the Senate.
Add it all up, and what you get is not a glorious triumph of a unified army on an unstoppable march to the White House, but an expansion of the GOP civil war into a two-front bicameral battle.
Recently asked by Politico to explain what he would pursue with a GOP Senate, Boehner said, "Nobody's given it that much thought." Probably because thinking about it would give him a panic attack no amount of merlot could cure. What can he and his Senate counterpart possibly propose to position the party for a general election in 2016 that won't be mocked and blocked by the Tea Party?
Consider Boehner's most recent humiliation over legislation to address the child migrant influx.
While the politically rational Boehner tried to keep the immediate crisis separate from the messy politics of immigration reform, Sen. Cruz whipped up the House rank and file to refuse support for any bill that did not terminate the president's executive order providing waivers to some undocumented immigrants already in America who arrived as children. Lacking the votes, Boehner junked his narrow proposal and bowed to the anti-immigration forces.
As a result, just one month after Boehner had decided that Republicans were better off avoiding any immigration reform votes, he had to schedule an incredibly controversial one. Now nearly every House Republican is on record in favor of deporting people who grew up in America and who have no significant connection to their birth country, further worsening Republican efforts to reach out to the Latino community in advance of the next presidential election.
If the Tea Party gets its mitts on the Senate too, the humiliations will only become more frequent and more public.
Now obviously, under normal circumstances, taking over the Senate while retaining the House would be a good thing. Republicans would control the national agenda, deny Obama a free hand in further shaping the judiciary, and be one step away from fully controlling Washington after the 2016 presidential election. They could pass whatever legislation they wanted, and put Obama in the unpleasant position of, having spent years complaining of GOP obstructionism, now having to constantly veto things himself, or swallow what Republicans feed him.
But this is not a normal circumstance.
There is a fundamental breakdown of trust between the party leadership and the conservative rank and file. Attempts by the leadership to tone down rhetoric, calibrate policy positions away from the ideological fringes, and avoid all-or-nothing legislative battles are irrationally decried as surrender. Such pragmatism would be crucial at the moment Republicans are in full control of Congress and carry a heightened responsibility to help govern, but they will be in no position to deliver. If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that the "party of no" GOP does not want to actually govern.
Republicans may want to take solace in the fact that Boehner has been able to contain the worst impulses of the party's right flank. He was able to ram through bills to provide hurricane disaster relief, expand domestic violence protections to LBGT survivors, stave off cuts to Medicare reimbursements for doctors, and avoid the insolvency of the highway trust fund, all over the objections of conservative ideologues. And while he let Cruz's followers shut down the government in 2013, he made sure it didn't last long and that there would not be a repeat performance in an election year (though perhaps one shouldn't be overconfident until Congress actually passes legislation to fund the government by the next Sept. 30 deadline).
That track record suggests a Republican-controlled House and Senate wouldn't completely jump the rails. But even when Boehner wins, he wins ugly. And if the GOP wins the Senate, these fissures will constantly be laid bare in the upper chamber too, preventing the leadership from presenting a consistent and welcoming face to the general electorate, and putting Republican presidential contenders in one awkward position after another.
A titanic budget battle, with the usual mix of unreasonable demands and threat of government shutdown, will be irresistible to the Tea Party once Republicans run all of Congress. But an outside-the-Beltway candidate like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, inclined to run as someone who can end the federal government's chronic dysfunction, will be hard-pressed to choose between criticizing Washington or praising the priorities of the Washington Republicans. If another natural disaster hits — especially in a key primary state or swing state — and conservatives again fight against emergency aid, presidential candidates who have a vote in Congress will be forced to choose between the compassion of the average voter and frugality of the debt-obsessed right-winger.
Those are the sorts of headaches that await Republicans if they win the Senate. And what exactly would they gain? Yes, they would be better able to stop Obama from further shaping the judiciary. But so long as they keep the House, they don't need the Senate to bottle up Obama's legislative agenda. Nor do they need to win the Senate outright in 2014 to win both the White House and the Senate in 2016. The few benefits do not outweigh the costs stemming from expanded governing responsibilities.
Republicans who want to win big in 2016 should ask themselves: Do we really want to export the House circus to the Senate next year? Or do we want to take a little extra time to sort out our own issues, and give our next presidential nominee more latitude to define the party's agenda for the future?