Did Social Security Cost Democrats a Seat In Florida?

Liberals see a chance to convince Democrats of the political risks of supporting entitlement cuts.

MIAMI BEACH - OCTOBER 29: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink (R) is greeted during a Women's Early Vote Rally the Miami Beach city hall October 29, 2010 in Miami Beach, Florida. Sink is facing off against Republican challenger Rick Scott for the Florida governor's seat. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 17, 2014, 3:27 p.m.

With every­one try­ing to draw some na­tion­al les­son from last week’s spe­cial elec­tion in Flor­ida ahead of the Novem­ber midterms, add this to the mix: Lib­er­als think Demo­crats shot them­selves in the foot on So­cial Se­cur­ity, an is­sue that played a cent­ral role in the dis­trict.

Demo­crats used a fa­mil­i­ar play­book, ac­cus­ing Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Jolly of want­ing to privat­ize the pro­gram. House Ma­jor­ity PAC, an out­side group that sup­ports Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, dropped al­most $750,000 on an ad warn­ing that Jolly “lob­bied for a spe­cial in­terest that wanted to privat­ize So­cial Se­cur­ity,” and that he “still says privat­iz­a­tion should be on the table.”

Demo­crat Alex Sink her­self called So­cial Se­cur­ity “an Amer­ic­an prom­ise” and said that un­like her op­pon­ent, she would “fight to pro­tect the in­teg­rity” of the pro­gram. It’s a mes­sage the party hoped would res­on­ate in a dis­trict that has one of the na­tion’s highest con­cen­tra­tions of voters over the age 65.

But Jolly had an easy comeback: He denied want­ing to privat­ize So­cial Se­cur­ity, and fired back by not­ing that Sink voiced some sup­port for the Simpson-Bowles debt-re­duc­tion plan, which in­cluded cuts to So­cial Se­cur­ity.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee hit Sink from the left on this, say­ing she “sup­ports a plan that raises the re­tire­ment age for So­cial Se­cur­ity re­cip­i­ents, raises So­cial Se­cur­ity taxes, and cuts Medi­care.” Katie Prill, a spokes­per­son for the Re­pub­lic­an group, ad­ded: “Send­ing Alex Sink to Wash­ing­ton guar­an­tees that seni­ors right here in Pinel­las County are in jeop­ardy of los­ing the So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care be­ne­fits that they have earned and de­serve.”

Lib­er­al writers cried hy­po­crisy, but it didn’t mat­ter: Sink lost.

For the Left, it’s evid­ence that Demo­crats need to take a firm line on the en­ti­tle­ment pro­gram — or even sup­port ex­pand­ing it — at a time when some in the party, and es­pe­cially the White House, have offered con­ces­sions.

“She was a flawed mes­sen­ger,” says Neil Sroka of Demo­cracy for Amer­ica. “The fight has moved. But too many Demo­crats in Wash­ing­ton, while we’re 10 years away from the Bush privat­iz­a­tion ef­fort, haven’t yet got­ten it in­to their talk­ing points that voters also don’t sup­port cuts of any kind to So­cial Se­cur­ity.”

The Left has been push­ing an ef­fort that is slowly gain­ing steam in Con­gress to ex­pand So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits. On Thursday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., be­came the sev­enth sen­at­or to come out for ex­pan­sion dur­ing a Sen­ate hear­ing. The first to sign on was Sen. Mark Be­gich, D-Alaska, who is fa­cing a tough reelec­tion battle this year. Merkley is also up for reelec­tion, though his con­test is slightly less heated.

“If [Sink] had run on ex­pand­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity and Jolly had to re­spond by say­ing he was against it, I pos­it she would have won on that alone,” says Alex Lawson of So­cial Se­cur­ity Works. “It’s just ob­vi­ous that what needs to hap­pen is draw­ing a con­trast with your op­pon­ent and Sink failed to do that be­cause the mes­saging was very muddled.”¦ It makes much more sense to go on of­fense.”

Rick Wilson, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist based in Tal­l­a­hassee, isn’t con­vinced. “That’s a bit of a bank shot to me. These are people who are already on So­cial Se­cur­ity.”¦ Ex­pan­sion is not really top of mind for them,” he said. Be­sides, he ad­ded, people are already skep­tic­al of any­thing com­ing out of Wash­ing­ton, so more is not ne­ces­sar­ily more.

Wilson, like Karl Rove, is skep­tic­al of the no­tion that Obama­care alone cost Sink the elec­tion. In ad­di­tion to the health law, he said, it was ba­sic fun­da­ment­als of get­ting voters to the polls.

Still, he agreed that Wash­ing­ton Demo­crats could stand to re­fresh their play­book when it comes to So­cial Se­cur­ity. “There’s a cer­tain truth to that,” he said. “Every single cycle, without fail” pro­duces sim­il­ar mes­sages, and “there is a di­min­ish­ing re­turn on that kind of overly broad and in­cred­ibly shal­low kind of at­tack.”

With Sink likely to run again, she may get an­oth­er shot.

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