Two-Way Jabs on Medicare Recast Races for Congress
By CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON — In one tight Florida House race, a hastily assembled TV commercial to begin airing Wednesday takes aim at a top target of Democrats, highlighting his votes “to end Medicare as we know it.”
Republicans in Montana are advertising on behalf of their Senate candidate, noting his stance against a Republican plan “that could harm the Medicare program.” House Republican strategists are advising their lawmakers to try to stay on the offensive over Medicare and steer clear of words like privatization.
The fight over Medicare, the popular federal health care program for older Americans, is rapidly intensifying in House and Senate races around the nation after the selection of Representative Paul D. Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Congressional Democrats and some analysts say that development could transform the fight for control of Congress, given his role as the author of a House-approved budget plan that would reshape Medicare.
“A House budget plan is a House budget plan,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Tuesday. “But all of the sudden the architect and definer of that has the potential of sitting in the White House, and that is really frightening to people.”
Despite political anxiety expressed privately by some Republican strategists about Mitt Romney’s choice of Mr. Ryan, other top Republicans say that they welcome the fight over Medicare and that they believe they can win a national debate over the future of entitlement programs. They intend to paint the Democratic Party as the one putting Medicare at risk by failing to come up with a plan to keep it solvent as a wave of baby boomers approaches retirement age.
Mr. Romney said Tuesday that he would, if president, restore Medicare cuts that both President Obama and Congressional Republicans have backed and unveiled a new campaign advertisement trying to drive home that point.
“Paul Ryan and Republicans are the only ones who have stepped up with proposals,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “These issues were going to come up anyway, and you might as well have your best and most articulate spokesman on the field making the case for it, and that is Paul Ryan.”
Mr. Ryan’s new prominence has abruptly thrust Medicare into the top tier of issues, but it was always going to be a theme in the 2012 House and Senate elections and was already playing a role in advertising.
Democrats had long intended to assault Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget in 2011 and 2012 and were trying to find a way to figuratively put Mr. Ryan on the ballot with his colleagues. Now Mr. Ryan will literally be on the ballot, and top Democratic strategists say that in picking him, Mr. Romney has given Medicare a huge boost as a driving issue that could lift Democrats in dozens of close races.
“Mitt Romney has given us a lot to work with,” said Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It was becoming challenging to try to nationalize the Ryan budget, and Mitt Romney just handed that to us.”
House Democrats moved quickly on Tuesday to try to cash in. In a high-profile South Florida race, the Democratic candidate, Patrick Murphy, prepared a new ad against the Republican incumbent, Allen B. West, that highlighted Mr. West’s two votes for the Ryan budget while asserting that Mr. Murphy would “fight for seniors, protect Medicare.”
While the new commercial does not specifically mention Mr. Ryan, strategists said it was fashioned to capitalize on his joining the race for the White House. It is also the leading edge of what is likely to be a flurry of ads, Web activity and aggressive political advocacy as the two parties compete to shape the narrative on Medicare.
In addition to helping bankroll Mr. Murphy’s ad, the Congressional committee began automated phone calls in the districts of 50 Republican incumbents who voted for Mr. Ryan’s budget, which would turn Medicare into a voucher program for future retirees. In Nevada, a labor group is buying online ads that say the Romney-Ryan ticket would drive up costs for older Americans.
As Democrats pushed the idea of a political windfall, top Republicans say they believe the worry about Mr. Ryan is overheated. They say they were already bracing for a Medicare line of attack and are more than ready for it.
“We’ll take any opportunity to talk about Obamacare and the Medicare cuts that were included in it,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, who said that Republicans had learned how to contend with the issue after having debated it for more than two years already.
In a private message to candidates, House Republican leaders sought to allay any concern by providing material on how to respond to inquiries on Medicare, suggesting that candidates make the case that Democrats have their own lightning rod of a running mate: the new health care law.
The message also advises Republicans to choose their words carefully and emphasize “strengthen” and “protect” over phrases like “every option is on the table.”
Despite the Republicans’ confidence in their ability to counter the Democrats, the Senate race in Montana offered evidence that some party leaders recognize that the Ryan budget could be a liability.
The state party there paid for an advertisement on behalf of Representative Denny Rehberg, a Republican who is in a close race with Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat. It lauds Mr. Rehberg for his votes against the Ryan budget, a stance that the advertisement said showed his independence in partisan Washington.
The ultimate impact of the Ryan pick on Congressional races will become clearer in the days ahead.
“Certainly more Democrats are more enthusiastic than they were last week,” said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “But whether it moves a ton of races, we are going to have to wait and see.”
Michael D. Shear and Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting from New York.