Use of Ryan budget in Hill races offers insights

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., holds up Barack Obama's budget in February. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., holds up Barack Obama's budget in February. Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

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.

Indeed, the history of the congressional skirmishes shows that the messenger makes all the difference. In Kelly, Republicans nominated a seriously flawed candidate whose inability to win went far beyond his positions on entitlements. In last year’s New York special election, the party nominated a candidate (Jane Corwin) who was wholly incapable of articulating a coherent and consistent position on the merits of the Ryan budget, and hardly put up a fight on the issue.

But in the subsequent Nevada race, Republican nominee Amodei was prepared for the attacks, and fought back aggressively, by accusing Obama of being the bigger risk to seniors’ Medicare thanks to his health care law. It worked like a charm, turning a rising star in Nevada political circles – state Treasurer Kate Marshall – into an also-ran whose candidacy was written off well before the special election.

Ryan himself has proven his political staying power in a battleground southeast Wisconsin district in which one-quarter of the voters are blue-collar workers. Early on in the election cycle, Democrats crowed about putting up a serious challenge to the congressman, believing he was newly vulnerable over his controversial budget. Instead, his Democratic challenger Rob Zerban utterly failed to get any traction and Democrats privately concede that Ryan would coast to re-election. He’s never won less than 63 percent of the vote since elected in 1998, despite running in a district that backed Obama in 2008.

Even Democratic polling, which ostensibly shows the vulnerability of the Ryan budget to Congressional Republicans, isn’t as clear-cut as advertised. Greenberg’s Democracy Corps survey showed that the Republican argument for the Ryan budget actually wins widespread support in (largely) Democratic-leaning battleground districts.

According to their survey, 52 percent of voters in those swing districts support the budget, with just 37 percent opposing it. But when hearing the various critiques of the plan, support falls to 46 percent, with 47 percent opposing it. For a proposal that’s considered such a lightning rod, an even split hardly suggests it’s toxic.

The risk comes primarily from the demographic composition of the voters Romney needs to win over – seniors and working-class white voters. Romney is comfortably leading Obama among both groups, but the Republican ticket must rack up sizable margins of victory with them.

Greenberg’s survey showed seniors and working-class whites to be the most receptive to the Democratic argument. If enough of the undecided voters tip into Obama’s column, it could play a decisive role in the election. With Romney being cast by Democrats as a wealthy plutocrat, adding the entitlement argument to the equation could risk underscoring that message.

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