House Democrats Not Getting Medicare Traction They Sought

New York Democrat Kathy Hochul won her U.S. House seat in 2011 by attacking a Republican plan to partially privatize Medicare. This year she is emphasizing trade, jobs and the economy in her re-election campaign.

For Hochul and fellow House Democrats such as Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, the Republican plan to offer private insurance for future Medicare recipients isn’t providing the same political mileage that helped Hochul win in a special election. The Hochul and Critz races are rated “tossup” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“The percentage of the electorate that cares about Medicare as their foremost issue” is “just nowhere compared to the economy and jobs,” said David Wasserman, House analyst for the Washington-based Cook Political Report. “Republicans have effectively neutralized that line of attack by pointing to Obamacare.”

In their counterattack, Republicans accuse House Democrats such as Iowa’s Leonard Boswell of voting to raid $716 billion from Medicare to finance President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul. While polls show most voters agree with the Democrats, they view the economy as the more important issue.

Wasserman predicted that Democrats won’t achieve the net gain of 25 seats they need to retake the majority of the 435-member House in the Nov. 6 election. He cited congressional redistricting that favored Republicans and retirements by a handful of moderate Democrats that make it probable Republicans will pick up those seats.

Local Politics

House races are often influenced by local politics, so issues that work for a candidate in one district -- such as Medicare, the coal industry and foreign trade -- may not be as effective somewhere else.

Democratic Representative Ben Chandler of Kentucky is in a competitive race following Republican accusations that Democrats are waging a “war on coal” by tightening government regulation of mining and coal-fired power plants. Still, in West Virginia’s coal country, a similar attack featuring ads with coal miners complaining about lost jobs hasn’t ignited significant opposition to Democratic Representative Nick Rahall.

The Medicare issue is making some races more competitive. It may help Democrat Dan Maffei regain the House seat he lost in 2010 by 659 votes to Republican Representative Ann Marie Buerkle in upstate New York. The rematch is rated “lean Democratic” by Cook.

Guaranteed Benefits

A House Democratic campaign ad says Buerkle supports House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal that “ends guaranteed Medicare benefits.”

After Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his running mate in August, New York Representative Steve Israel, leader of House Democrats’ campaign, predicted Ryan would be a “down-ballot disaster for Republicans across the country.”

The attacks by Maffei and his Democratic allies prompted Buerkle to run an ad casting herself as a Medicare defender.

“I am a registered nurse, the mother of six and the grandmother of 13,” she said in the ad. “For me, Medicare isn’t a political issue, it’s personal.”

Buerkle, who voted to repeal Obama’s health-care law, said in the ad her 91-year mother “depends on Medicare” so “I don’t let anyone cut it for her or seniors like her.”

Another House Republican in a close race, Minnesota Representative Chip Cravaack, appeared in an ad with his father, saying, “Medicare is a commitment we made to our parents and it’s a promise I intend to keep.”

Illinois, New York

Medicare may be helping Democrats mount competitive challenges to House Republicans Judy Biggert in Illinois, Dan Benishek in Michigan and Nan Hayworth in New York. The races are rated tossups by Cook.

In Florida, with a large senior-citizen population, Democratic attack ads about Medicare aren’t “really moving a lot of people” to vote against freshman Representative Allen West or other Republican House members, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

West, running in a redrawn district that includes Palm Beach, is in a tight race with Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy. The Cook report rates it as a tossup.

The Medicare issue has more significance for “baby boomers closer to retirement,” MacManus said. “The expectation that it would really push seniors to the Democrats isn’t realistic in light of Florida’s senior makeup,” which leans “a little bit more Republican.”

On the trade issue, Hochul is airing ads in western New York accusing her opponent, businessman Chris Collins, of sending jobs from his Buffalo manufacturing plants to China.

Shipping Jobs

Trade “is still a very hot-button issue” in the Buffalo area where the economy has been “fairly depressed” and opposition to free-trade deals “strikes a chord with the more union blue-collar electorate,” said James Campbell, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In an Iowa race between two incumbent House members, Democrat Boswell has accused Republican Tom Latham of supporting tax benefits to companies that “shipped” 650 jobs to Mexico and China. In southeastern Ohio, ads for Democratic challenger Charlie Wilson say Republican incumbent Bill Johnson supported the same tax breaks.

Coal is a top issue in the Kentucky rematch of Chandler and Republican Andy Barr, which the Cook report switched from “lean Democrat” to “tossup.”

‘Especially Vulnerable’

Chandler is an “especially vulnerable target,” partly because of his narrow victory over Barr in 2010, University of Louisville political scientist Laurie Rhodebeck said in an e-mail. “Coal interests blame President Obama, and by association, Chandler, for coal jobs recently lost in Kentucky, rather than acknowledge that last winter was mild and that coal-fired plants are switching to natural gas.”

Coal is also an issue in Democrat Critz’s re-election race in a district that includes mines in southwestern Pennsylvania. Critz has run an ad saying that lawmakers don’t understand that “our clean coal can go a long way toward making America energy independent.”

Chandler, Critz and Rahall were among 19 Democrats supporting legislation the House passed in September to block government rules curbing greenhouse-gas emissions or regulating coal mining. That day, Rahall said in an interview, he opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s “war on coal.”

“Who’s fighting it? I’m fighting it,” Rahall said. “Who’s conducting it? The EPA.”

Republicans haven’t had much success with the issue against Rahall, said Wasserman, who predicted he will win re-election. Wasserman said Republicans ran ads for their party’s challenger Rick Snuffer and “made some progress but not enough to justify staying until the end” of the campaign.

In Rahall’s West Virginia district, “Republicans aren’t playing to win,” Wasserman said.

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