The two chief election strategists for congressional Democrats said that Tuesday’s upset victory in a New York House race is proof positive that the Medicare debate is tilting political winds in their favor ahead of the 2012 elections.
“Today, I can tell you that I fundamentally believe that the House of Representatives is in play, and that the Democrats can win a majority in November 2012,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., told reporters on Thursday. “Now let me be clear: I am not saying that we will win—yet. And I’m not guaranteeing that we will pick up 24 seats today, and I’m not saying we’re going to have 100 seats in play. Victory in New York-26 is not going to make us cocky.” Republicans held a 25-seat majority over Democrats until Tuesday’s victory by Democrat Kathy Hochul narrowed that number to 24 seats.
More broadly, Israel said he was buoyed by Democrats’ recruiting successes, the DCCC’s fundraising numbers, and the grassroots mobilization the party is seeing on the ground. But the Republican Party’s plan to alter the Medicare system to a premium-support voucher system is the crux of Democratic confidence about their electoral prospects next year. “In New York-26, we served notice on Republicans that where there is a Democratic candidate who will support Medicare, we will take the fight to those districts, no matter how high the odds, no matter how steep the climb--we will, as Democrats, take the fight almost anywhere in America to protect America: East Coast, West Coast, Lake Erie,” he said.
One of those districts, Israel said, is Wisconsin’s 1st District, the seat of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the architect of the Medicare plan, where the DCCC has recruited Democrat Rob Zerban. Ryan remains favored to win reelection, and the Republican told ABC News in an interview that he is not concerned even if he does lose. “Now is not that time to be worried about political careers. Sincerely, I will be fine if I lose my House seat, because you know what? I will know I did what I thought was right to save this country from fiscal ruin,” Ryan said.
Senate Democrats have also found encouragement in the New York victory, said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. “The potency of this issue is not simply because Republicans want to end Medicare; it’s because … essentially what they’re doing is maintaining a tax cut for the very wealthy, and the way they do that is cutting benefits for seniors and by changing the way Medicare is done today.”
Murray said that the Medicare plan is causing problems for Republican Senate candidates such as Richard Lugar of Indiana, an incumbent who is facing a primary challenge on the right and who voted in favor of the plan. Murray said that GOP candidates, including George Allen in Virginia, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and Heather Wilson in New Mexico, are “tying themselves in knots” when it comes to their position on the Ryan Medicare plan. “We’re not going to let up. We are going to hope Republicans accountable for the policies they push here,” she said.
Republicans say they are willing to have Medicare debate, and will remind voters that the Obama health care law included huge cuts in Medicare. “In Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio and a number of other states with competitive Senate races next year, there will only be one candidate definitively on the record in voting to cut existing Medicare benefits for seniors and that will be the Democrat," said Brian Walsh, Communications Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "So the idea that national Democrats believe they can demagogue Medicare into next year’s election and hope voters will ignore the records of their own candidates isn’t just fanciful spin on their part, it’s really bad fanciful spin.”
Murray said that the GOP agenda has juiced DSCC’s recruitment efforts and that a handful of previously disinterested potential candidates are now mulling bids—but she declined to name names. Back at the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sought to tamp down the effects of the Democrats’ special-election victory. He told reporters that the Medicare plan had played a “small part of the reason we did not win,” and he suggested that Republican Jane Corwin’s campaign operation—and not the GOP agenda--played a role in the loss. “I could be somewhat critical of how the campaign was run, but the fact is we didn’t win,” he said.
The speaker did not indicate that his party will back away from the Medicare plan. “We have outlined a plan, frankly, we believe in,” Boehner said. “And the other fact is that the Democrats have no plan, which is going to lead to bankruptcy and cuts in seniors’ benefits. It’s about time they are honest with the American people.”
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Billy House contributed contributed to this article.