CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the winner of the Arizona House race. Democrat Ron Barber won the race.
Congressional campaigns often serve as an early-warning mechanism to measure voters’ temperature on emerging issues. With House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, it’s useful to look at several closely contested House races in which Ryan’s budget – and more broadly, the volatile subject of entitlement reform – became a central campaign issue.
Some of the biggest battles over the Ryan budget have occurred within the office suites housing the House campaign committees, where staffers immediately recognized they were dealing with an issue capable of dramatically changing the political trajectory in 2012. Conservative Republican policy wonks on Capitol Hill embraced Ryan’s vision of drastically revamping Medicare by giving individuals who turned 65 after 2022 a government subsidy to buy private insurance. But the GOP political operatives occupying the campaign war room were much more nervous.
Both House campaign committees prepared for the impact of the 2011 vote on Ryan’s controversial budget – one that drew the support of nearly every GOP member facing a competitive race. At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, party officials cast the vote as one that would take away Medicare for seniors, and put that strategy to use in a Republican-leaning upstate New York seat to blistering effect. Democrat Kathy Hochul earned her party's deep gratitude in May 2011 by scoring a stunning upset in a special election in upstate New York’s 26th District with her relentless emphasis on that theme.
Already today, Hochul has become something of a poster child for the Democratic argument that the Ryan budget is politically suicidal for Republicans. She was one of the first House Democrats to put out a release using it to attack her new opponent, Chris Collins, and the Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC cited one if its ads -- aired during the special election -- as a model for Democrats to use against the Romney-Ryan ticket.
Republicans, understanding the potency of the charge, prepared a counterattack in which they accused President Obama of already cutting benefits in his health care plan. In another special election in September 2011, their approach helped Mark Amodei cruise to victory in a Nevada district with a strong senior citizen population.
The rubber match came this June, in the race for Gabrielle Giffords’ vacant Arizona House seat. The Republican nominee, Jesse Kelly, was one of the few GOP candidates who didn’t prevail in 2010 thanks to his blunt criticism of Social Security and Medicare as unsustainable. He toned down his message, even airing an ad featuring his grandmother calling the charges absurd. Obama’s approval rating in the Republican-dominated district was so weak that Democratic nominee Ron Barber didn’t even say whether he would be supporting the president at one of the campaign forums.
Democrats quickly made the race a referendum on Kelly’s positions on entitlements, unleashing a barrage of attack ads featuring his past comments and casting him as a Medicare-buster. Barber won by a six-point margin, larger than Giffords’ margin two years earlier. Republicans attributed the special election as an anomaly, given the unique circumstances of the race and Giffords’ standing as a national hero after her near-fatal shooting a year earlier.
But a senior Democratic operative involved in the race said that despite the circumstances surrounding Giffords, Kelly began the race in the lead, according to internal polling conducted by the DCCC that was obtained by National Journal. Even after the pollster introduced biographical information for both candidates, Barber only moved into a statistical tie. It wasn’t until the DCCC and a Democratic-aligned super PAC spent millions airing Kelly’s past comments on entitlements and casting him as a Medicare-buster did the numbers move decidedly in Barber’s direction.
“This budget is very vulnerable to attack – voters do not like the individual elements and a debate back and forth works to the Democrats’ advantage,” former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg wrote in a memo, after conducting a poll in battleground House districts last month. “Seniors are particularly receptive to attacks on the Ryan budget and are willing to punish Republicans for touching Medicare.”
Republican party officials plugged into the House battleground races acknowledge that the Ryan budget throws an element of risk into the political equation. But they believe that based on lessons learned, they can fight Democrats to a draw, with an effective message – and messenger.
“The Ryan budget energizes the heck out of the Republican base, but requires strong messaging for independents who get cross messaging from Democrats on the same budget. It turns independents into a jump ball,” said Republican pollster Adam Geller, who conducts surveys for the National Republican Congressional Committee and also is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s pollster.