As Democrats tell it, Paul Ryan’s name on a national ticket crystalizes the choice in congressional elections everywhere because Republicans won’t be able to distance themselves enough from the Wisconsin Republican’s controversial Medicare reform proposals.
Even some Republicans have reacted in ways that show they too expect to be playing defense in the fall as the political debate begins to focus tightly on still relatively obscure details of Ryan’s plans to slash public spending.
“Linda McMahon will never support a budget that cuts Medicare,” said Corry Bliss, a spokesman for the leading Republican contender in a race for one of Connecticut’s U.S. Senate seats.
McMahon’s camp was reacting to a statement sent out by Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat running for the same Senate seat, that asked, “Mitt Romney Picks Paul Ryan – Does Linda McMahon?”
Democrats in races around the country similarly pounced on their foes.
Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, “Congressman Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are a match made in millionaires’ heaven, but they’ll be a nightmare for seniors who’ve earned their Medicare benefits.”
And President Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, described Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, as the architect of the “radical” GOP plan that would “end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system, shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors.”
Even before Mitt Romney made Ryan his running mate, the Medicare attack had had successful try-outs, resulting in the upset win of Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul in a special election in Western New York in 2011 and this year in the special race in Arizona to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
While this formula did not prevent Republican Mark Amodei last September from winning a special election in Nevada, Democrats clearly perceive some continued benefit in trying to hang Ryan’s proposals around the necks of all GOP candidates – even those who did not support the proposals on the House floor.
Hochul herself is returning to her winning 2011 strategy, quickly pinning Ryan’s policies Saturday on her current Republican foe, Chris Collins, and reminding, “Just one year ago, Western New York voters rejected the Ryan-Collins policies that would end Medicare as we know it and hurt middle-class families…”
Of course, largely missing from such volleys is any discussion of the actual budget minutiae contained in Ryan’s plans, including the softening this year of his initial 2011 Medicare reform approach, which would have eliminated the government-run insurance program in favor of a fixed-value voucher plan for seniors. The modified plan would keep traditional Medicare as a choice, but encourage seniors to shift to private plans that offer lower premiums. Ryan also is pushing other debt and deficit-cutting austerity measures that would cut spending on Medicaid, the health service for the poor and safety-net programs, such as food stamps, while keeping defense spending intact.
Certainly, not all Republicans running for Congress are distancing themselves from Ryan. Many boast their support for his budget-cutting plans. But Republicans also clearly understand from recent election history and opinion polling the potential potency of this line of Democratic attack, particularly among moderate voters in swing states with high numbers of retirees – Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and rust-belt areas.
Romney himself has tried to reserve space to reject pieces of Ryan’s budget while in concept supporting its overall approach. His campaign team has produced talking points that praise Ryan for going in the right direction but note that Romney would, as president, be putting his own plan together. “Of course they aren’t going to have the same view on every issue,” the talking points say.
But right now, some Republican candidates who may have reason to be fearful of the Ryan impact are left walking a tightrope. Some of this awkward tip-toeing has already been seen on the campaign trail.
Even before Ryan’s selection, Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., Rick Crawford, R-Ark., were urging older voters in their districts not to fear the Ryan plan, depicting it as little more than a guide with no binding legal authority, and noting, encouragingly, that Democrats in the Senate simply won’t pass it.
Still, Buerkle’s opponent – former Rep. Dan Maffei, whom she defeated narrowly in 2010 – jumped Saturday on Ryan’s selection to paint the “Ryan-Buerkle vision” for America as one in which the middle-class pays higher taxes and “don’t have Medicare as we know it, and women don’t have right to life saving health care.”
Buerkle’s didn’t respond to the Medicare assault, instead issuing a statement broadly supporting Romney’s choice of Ryan. “In choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Governor Romney further signifies he is focused on having a serious, substantive discussion of the issues and direction of our country, not on playing political games.”
Hochul’s opponent, Collins, was not even saying that much. His campaign did not return calls, and published reports out of Western New York described him refusing to say at an event if he is endorsing the Ryan budget.
“I’m not here to talk about Paul Ryan’s budget,” Collins said, according to The Buffalo News. “I’m here to talk about Obamacare, which is now the law and needs to be repealed, and the cuts that Kathy Hochul supports for current seniors, including ending Medicare Advantage as we know it.”
In Montana, where Rep. Denny Rehberg is locked in a tight Senate race to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, there was a more subtle effort to remind voters of Rehberg’s independent streak with regard to Ryan. The state GOP has already run an ad underscoring he is among the few House Republicans who have opposed Ryan’s budget plans, noting Rehberg refused to support “a Republican budget plan that could harm the Medicare program so many of Montana's seniors rely on.”
But Rehberg did not mention that on Saturday. Rather, he simply praised Ryan as a public servant, and said he appreciates “his character, intelligence, and creativity -- not only on the vast majority of issues on which we agree — like controlling government spending, developing our natural resources, and providing tax relief for families and job creators — but also on the few occasions where we haven't.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified he committee chaired by Rep. Steve Israel. It is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
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