One of the nastiest senior-scaring political attacks dates back to the 1994 governor’s race in Florida. Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles unleashed a last-minute round of calls warning older voters that his Republican challenger, Jeb Bush, and running mate Tom Feeney were threatening Social Security and Medicare. Bush lost, though he came back to win in 1998.
“It’s a staple in the Democratic playbook to scare seniors,” said Republican consultant Mike Hanna, who worked on the Bush campaigns. “After that deplorable tactic worked, Bush made a point of reaching out to seniors and explaining what he stood for. Romney and Ryan are smart to also take this head on.”
Entitlement reform is frequently described as the “third rail” of Florida politics. When attacks on President Bush’s plan to “privatize” Social Security helped Democrats seize control of Congress in 2006, one of the Republican casualties was Clay Shaw, a 26-year incumbent and the Social Security subcommittee chairman.
Republican Marco Rubio appeared to take a risk when he came out in favor of raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits in his 2010 Senate campaign. Though Rubio was leading the race when he took that position, Republicans take his victory as a sign that entitlement reform is no longer a deal-breaker with voters. The GOP also points to Republican Mark Amodei’s 2011 victory in Nevada’s second congressional district in which he successfully fended off Democratic charges that he would devastate Medicare by attacking health care reform.
“The Obama campaign thinks they can pander to seniors, and recent elections show that’s not the case,” said Alberto Martinez, a Romney spokesman in Florida and a veteran of the Rubio campaign. “Seniors have worked their whole lives to build up this country and now they are seeing it squandered and worrying about their kids and grandkids under Obamacare.”
The other part of the Republican strategy for defending Medicare reform could be described as playing the mom card. Rubio rarely mentions his support for overhauling Social Security without reassuring voters that his own mother depends on the trust fund. Amodei countered the Medicare attacks by keeping Ryan's plan at arms' legnth--and by featuring his mother in television ads. “You should know that I will work to improve and support the program,” he said. “You better, Mark. I’m counting on you,” his gray-haired mother responded.
When Ryan makes his debut on the campaign trail in Florida, his 78-year-old mother will be at his side.