Jan. 2, 2014— -- New years offer good opportunities for fresh starts. And after a rough -- and unproductive -- 2013, both Democrats and Republicans desperately need 2014 to be the dawn of a new era.
With a midterm election on the horizon, control of Congress is at stake in 2014. The next year could also present opportunities for prospective presidential candidates to distinguish themselves in Washington or against Washington.
The implementation of President Obama's health care law begins in earnest in 2014 and several issues, including the debt limit and immigration reform, will demand Washington's attention.
How the parties deal with these challenges and take advantage of whatever political winds may blow in their favor in the next year will help determine who goes into the presidential election season with the wind at their backs.
In a word: Obamacare.
Republicans believe their greatest advantage in the next year will lie with President Obama's health care law. After the rollout of the health care website was bungled and Obama suffered from fallout over his failure to keep a promise that Americans wouldn't lose the health care plans they had and liked, the last few months of 2013 were some of the worst for Democrats and some of the most resonant for Republicans' anti-Obamacare message.
The party hopes to carry that into 2014 and saddle vulnerable Democrats across the country with the blame for anything that might go wrong with the law in the new year.
"Republicans should continue to amplify the problems of Obamacare to the public but will soon need to describe some of their alternative, market-based solutions," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former Senate chief of staff.
Presenting an alternative may be critical if they hope to make the argument to voters that the GOP should control not only the House, but also the Senate.
They'll need not only an Obamacare "alternative" but also to prove they can do something on a range of issues, including taxes and immigration reform.
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP political strategist with Potomac Strategy Group, expects Republicans may be "selling a Contract with America-style positive agenda on a range of issues: alternative to Obamacare, energy, school choice, tax reform, border security and legal immigration reform. With a positive agenda, a wave year is possible."
When gridlock strikes, the Republican Party often takes the blame.
Republicans learned the hard way in 2013 that a paralyzed government -- ahem, a 16-day government shutdown -- is deeply unpopular with American voters.
Though some of the ground lost after the government shutdown has been made up, Republicans will need to avoid going down a similar path if the opportunity presents itself when it comes time to raise the debt limit in early 2014.
"They must have a plan to approach the debt ceiling issue that allows conservatives to make their points about fiscal responsibility in a clear way," Bonjean said. "This has to be done without hurting the Republican brand like they did during the fight over shutting down the government to defund Obamacare."
With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, they will set the table with issues that are favorable to them such as immigration reform and economic inequality.
Mackowiak warned that the GOP risks playing "political defense" by fighting political battles on the Democrats' terms.
"Minimum wage, unemployment insurance and immigration are all politically dangerous," he added.
When Republicans are divided, Democrats believe they can win.
The Democratic Party's biggest task in 2014 will be to hold on to the Senate, and that task will be made easier if Republican primaries become a race to the right of the party.
Gaffe-prone candidates who were favorites of the conservative base of the Republican Party have saved Democratic seats in the past -- such as in Missouri with Todd Akin and Delaware with Christine O'Donnell.
Democrats hope 2014 will bring them more good fortune in that department.
"The biggest opportunity for Democrats in 2014 involves the ongoing battle for the soul of the Republican Party," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "As long as the tea party continues to dominate the debate, extremists within the party will continue to drive the Republican brand into the toilet with record-low polling numbers."
And then there's Obamacare, which is perhaps the biggest risk of all.
The success or failure of the law's implementation in 2014 is largely out of the Democrats' control, at this point.
But if it goes poorly, it will certainly be used as political cudgel in the 2014 midterm elections. And it could do serious damage to the Democrats' ability to make the case that their governance philosophy is better than the alternative, Manley warned.
"The biggest pitfall for Democrats in 2014 will be the effort by Republicans to use Obamacare -- which I believe will get better -- as a stalking horse for their effort to question the proper role and size of government in our society," he said.
In Washington, President Obama and Democrats have made it clear that raising the minimum wage and finding other policy issues that address rising income inequality will be at the top of their agenda.
But that only will work if they're able to keep other distractions off the table.
Fights over any number of issues -- immigration reform, gun control, the debt limit and taxes -- could effectively bring Washington to the standstill.
If public frustration with the status quo boils over, Democrats could take some of the blame.
"The biggest pitfall for Democrats in 2014 has to be pervasive gridlock that has enveloped Capitol Hill -- which is why Republicans are doing everything they can to grind the place to a halt," Manley said. "People want change, and Republicans are betting that if they don't get it they will once again look to Republicans to lead."