What's Scaring Republicans? Scared Seniors

The GOP must calm their fears before the midterm elections

With President George W. Bush riding high in the polls, a number of swing voting blocs--including baby boomers and suburbanites--are increasingly likely to support the GOP. That should be good news for Bush brother Jeb, who is seeking reelection as governor of Florida. But one group vital to his candidacy--and perhaps key to the midterm elections--is heading in the other direction and setting off Republican alarm bells.

After a decade of GOP gains, older Americans--particularly women--are once again trending Democratic. Seniors are "the most Democratic cohort by age and the least likely to shift their opinion," says White House political guru Karl Rove. And that provides solace to Jeb Bush's likely challenger, former Attorney General Janet Reno, and other Dems running in states and districts where elderly voters are clustered.

Pocketbook issues are at the heart of recent Democratic gains. While the stock market has hammered portfolios across the board, younger investors have plenty of time to recoup their losses. Older Americans, on the other hand, are increasingly worried about their standard of living. "The recession of the '90s was the baby boomer's recession," says Republican pollster Edward A. Goeas III. "This recession has been more of a seniors' recession." That has Republicans worried that Democratic "senior scare" tactics--a feature of elections for 20 years--may be particularly potent in 2002.

The political stakes in the battle for the senior vote are enormous. Because the elderly are more likely to vote in the midterms than any other age group, they hold disproportionate sway. A gray wave could determine the political fate of a number of politicians, including Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jean Carnahan of Missouri, as well as Jeb Bush. In addition, seniors could tip the balance in a dozen House races in states such as Arizona, California, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.

Democrats sense an opening. They are preparing to dust off their old charge that Republicans are pillaging the Social Security trust fund. What's more, they'll hammer the GOP for failing to provide a prescription-drug benefit. "There is no reason to be intimidated [by the President's popularity]," says Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. "This is a moment of opportunity."

Dems will blast the GOP for jeopardizing Social Security's future to underwrite a $1.35 trillion tax cut that tilts toward the wealthy. Ultimately, says Democratic strategist James Carville, Republican plans will require seniors to sacrifice. The GOP believes "you cannot be taken seriously on Social Security [reform] unless you take some old people and slap them around," he grins.

Republicans aren't sitting back. While accusing the Democrats of preying on the fears of old people, the White House also has rolled out a new "retirement security" agenda. The President's four-pronged approach would expand 401(k) plans, protect workers against what he calls "pension-plan abuse" by corporate miscreants, provide prescription-drug discount cards for seniors, and allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts. House Republicans have a simpler idea: issue government certificates to each retiree promising that the feds will deliver every cent in promised Social Security benefits. The problem? The certificates would not be binding on future Congresses.

While Bush promised during the 2000 campaign to push for privatization, he is postponing a specific plan until after the elections, fearing a senior backlash. "There are some within the Administration, and particularly within the House GOP, who are wary of the issue," says Senator John Kyl (R-Ariz.), a leading privatization proponent.

Republicans are betting that their preemptive policy strike will neutralize the Dems' emotional appeals. But unless Republicans can persuade seniors to reject any scare campaign, the GOP faces an increasingly serious challenge to its power on the Hill--and to the Bush agenda in 2003 and beyond.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lorraine Woellert and Howard Gleckman, in Washington

— With assistance by Lorraine Woellert, and Howard Gleckman

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