Not many issues can thwart the political momentum that carried Republicans to historic midterm gains only six months later—but Medicare is one of them.
The GOP received a rude awakening last week that it’s no longer 2010 when its candidate in New York’s 26th District special election, Jane Corwin, suffered a humiliating defeat to Democrat Kathy Hochul in what is a normally safe Republican area.
Strategists have pointed to a litany of reasons for the reversal in fortune: the unpredictable nature of special elections and the presence of a self-funding tea party candidate, who they say siphoned votes from Corwin. But there’s also acknowledgment that, even if they think Democrats are overblowing the issue, that Corwin’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to replace Medicare with a voucher system dealt a severe blow to her campaign.
It’s an issue Hochul repeatedly attacked her over, and one even she acknowledged that she had waited too long to respond to.
Republicans say they know the party bungled its message on Medicare and that, if it wants to dull its impact, it needs to find a new way to talk about a program that many voters are highly protective of. Conversation with an array of party officials both in Washington in three states with particularly elderly populations, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida, reveal widespread agreement that the party needs to vigorously respond to the charges that it plans to end Medicare, and quickly go on the attack to charge that Democrats are just as grave a threat to the future of the entitlement program.
Part of the response has to be doing a better job explaining the Ryan plan—in particular emphasizing that only those younger than 55 would be affected, strategists say. It’s a challenge for two reasons: Many Republicans, simply, don’t have much experience talking about entitlement programs, especially the large freshman class of conservatives who rode to victory emphasizing a message almost entirely focused on spending, government growth, and the economy.
But even adept explanations could struggle against Democratic attacks, says David Johnson, the former executive director of the Florida Republican Party.
“The explanation takes a couple of minutes. Pushing an old lady off a cliff in a wheelchair takes five seconds,” said Johnson, referencing one way the Ryan budget could be criticized in an attack ad. “And that’ a real challenge.”
He pointed out it’s a similar challenge to the one facing the president and Democrats in selling their health care plan last year.
It’s a daunting enough one that Republicans say they can spend only a portion of their time explaining the plan, and that most of the time needs to be spent attacking Democrats over Medicare. They have two ways to do it: one, emphasize to voters that if the Republican plan isn’t adopted, there won’t be any Medicare in the near future because the program will become insolvent. Second, dust off attacks from 2010 and tell voters that Democrats, when they passed their health care bill, are the only party to cut the program for seniors already on it—Republicans used that strategy ad naseum in attack ads last year that the health care bill included $500 billion in cuts to the entitlement program.
Mark Harris, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania who managed Sen. Pat Toomey’s winning campaign last year, said the president and others own the health care system now, so whatever dissatisfaction people have with it can be blamed on Democrats.
“We saw an overwhelming number of senior citizens, conservative Democrats, and independents who voted Republican, some first time since Reagan, last year because of the health care issue,” he said. “The Democrats now own that issue—when people’s premiums go up, they’re going to get blamed for it.”
The goal is to try and make voters see a choice between the two parties, not exclusively play defense on a sensitive issue.
But there’s an almost unanimous sense among Republicans that if the campaign becomes one focused on the entitlement system, they’ll lose even if they effectively argue their points. Medicare is the Democratic Party’s turf, an area that is the bread and butter of their attraction.
The challenge for Republican candidates is trying to argue their opponents to a draw on the issue, and then pivot to talking about the economy, where they’re more likely to win over voters.
“The Republicans should be focused on jobs and economy, and if they’re forced into a position of defense on Medicare, they’re going to have a tough race,” said Nathan Sproul, an Arizona-based strategist.
He added: “If a Republican gets attacked, they have to defend themselves and articulate why this is a responsible approach to an entitlement crisis to make sure it’s in place. But Republicans should try to be on offense.”
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