President Obama is raising lots of money to help stave off Republican control of the Senate, but the only thing that can really save Democrats is a larger voter turnout than the typical midterm election attracts. This November’s election will never approach presidential-year numbers, but if Democrats can add a percentage or two—and in some deep red states, more than that—victory could be within reach.
To boost turnout, Democrats have to make voters believe the stakes are high, and one of the best ways to do that, as history has shown, is persuading people that if Republicans are elected, they will scale back programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “It’s an oldie but goody,” says Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noting that Democrats won the Senate back in 1986 in large part on the strength of their promise to protect those programs. “You have to have some issue to excite the voters,” he says. “If anything upsets the apple cart, this might.”
Republicans are widely favored to pick up the six seats they need to gain the Senate majority, but race by race, it may not be the slam dunk the GOP anticipates. Sabato recently switched the Senate race in Arkansas from leaning Republican to toss-up based in part on incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor’s attacks on his challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton, for his votes for the Ryan budget and a more draconian Republican Study Committee (RSC) budget for those who thought the Ryan budget didn’t go far enough to cut spending.
“The RSC budget is a travesty, and any Democrat who can use it should,” says Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs and a cofounder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group whose support for entitlement reforms has taken flak from more traditional Democrats. On the study group budget, there is no divide.
Voted on with little fanfare in March 2013, just before the Republican-controlled House passed the Ryan budget, the RSC budget is what MSNBC host Rachel Maddow called the Democrats’ “secret sauce” in a recent segment that featured the Pryor-Cotton race. “It does all the same things [as the Ryan budget], but it does them sooner and does them worse,” says Erik Dorey, Pryor’s deputy campaign manager. While Ryan increases the retirement age to 67, RSC takes it to 70 and hastens the transformation of Medicare into a voucherized system. “It’s a great vote to cite because it gives you some punch to TV ads,” says Sabato. “It’s not just rhetoric; it’s an actual vote.”
The RSC budget is particularly effective against Cotton, as he was the only member of the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote for it. He also was alone in his vote against the farm bill this year, which hurt him. “Cotton hasn’t roared out of the gate the way people thought he would, and the Pryor name is golden there,” says Sabato, adding that while the Democratic incumbent may not win in the end, the race is going to be much closer than anyone anticipated when Pryor was called “toast” just a few months ago.
The RSC contains a litany of problematic items for Cotton, from drastically cutting Pell grants to eliminating subsidized air service for smaller communities, a market access program that helps rural states sell their products, and a number of regional conservation programs. These items may not end up in ads, but Pryor highlights them as he travels around Arkansas.
This summer, the Senate will vote on the Medicare Protection Act, introduced by Pryor to require a 60-vote majority to make changes in the program; budget issues normally require a simple majority. “We’re on solid ground when this race is a choice between two very different records in Washington,” says Dorey, who has watched Pryor pull ahead in recent polls.
Two other key Senate races in Louisiana and Colorado pit incumbent Democrats against House Republicans who voted for both the Ryan budget and the RSC. Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu’s media adviser, Mark Mellman, calls the votes the gift that keeps on giving. When The New York Times asked Landrieu’s challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, how those votes might affect the race, he dismissed them as “monkey dust.” Maybe so, but tell that to the voters. Mellman plans to hit Republicans for their failure to expand health care, and without saying Medicaid, inform voters that their tax dollars are going to New York and California to help people there because Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal refuses to take the federal money.
Raising the retirement age to 70 or moving Medicare to a voucher system are flash points that Democrats are exploiting after taking a beating in the last two election cycles for shifting money out of Medicare into Obamacare, savings that Republicans incorporated into their own budget plan while decrying President Obama and the Democrats. “It’s an old strategy bolstered by new evidence,” says Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “There are a lot of good 30-second ads contained in both these bills [Ryan budget and RSC].” In Colorado, where incumbent Sen. Mark Udall is facing a spirited challenge from Rep. Cory Gardner, who voted for both budgets, the “secret sauce” is there to be used as needed.
Manley concedes that Democrats are backing themselves into a corner much the way Republicans have with their no-taxes pledge, “but given the fact that Republicans are not serious about legislating, that problem will have to be dealt with another time.” For now, the secret sauce is about winning, not governing.
Correction: An earlier version of this article called the Republican Study Committee the Republican Study Group.