Now What?

Battle Over Paul Ryan Budget Set to Shape House Races in November

Patricia Murphy on the plan’s ripple effect in tight, down-ticket races—and the brewing ‘knife fight.’

T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images

Even before Mitt Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate Saturday, the congressman’s aggressive, often controversial budget plans had made him a lightning rod in congressional races across the country.

Now that he’s on the ticket with Romney, Ryan and his trail of budget blueprints will play an outsize role in races down the ballot and across the country. Republicans say Ryan is the smartest numbers guy in the business, and they’re ready for what they call “a knife fight” over Medicare, while Democrats are not so silently asking themselves what they ever did right to deserve Ryan as the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee.

“Is this what Christmas morning feels like?” said Jesse Ferguson, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, describing how he reacted to the news of the Ryan pick. “We wanted a national debate on this, and Romney just gave us one.”

“This” is the Ryan budget, a catch-all phrase for a series of budget proposals the Wisconsin congressman has introduced over the last three years, all of which have as key components tax cuts, major cuts in government spending, and a proposal to move Medicare from an entitlement to a “premium-support” program, with the government giving seniors who are 55 now money to buy their own insurance but no pocket change to pay for things like copays and deductibles.

Ryan’s latest budget would make the Medicare switch optional for seniors, but the details of the ambitious agenda have been lost in the sprint to define Ryan and his plans for America’s grannies.

Doug Thornell, a former top aide to the DCCC and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said that with the Ryan pick, Romney has given Democrats in House and Senate races a chance to run on the one issue they have always believed could be an Achilles’ heel for Republicans.

“We know this budget as well as any piece of policy out there. It’s been digested, it’s been tested. These are ideas that have tested poorly for years,” Thornell said.

While the Ryan budget is not particularly well known outside Washington, when voters are asked about the changes to Medicare that Ryan has proposed, “It’s not just a negative,” said Thornell. “It’s the top negative, it’s through the roof even in GOP districts. No matter how you slice it, it’s just unpopular with voters. It sinks like a lead balloon.”

But Republicans counter that Democrats would have tried to tie Romney to the Ryan plan anyway, and in the affable congressman the GOP is putting its best budget spokesman forward in an election cycle when the economy already dominates voters’ minds.

“House Republicans have been engaged in a debate on President Obama’s record of debt and deficit spending for nearly four years now,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who is running campaign strategy for House GOP hopefuls. “Our historic victories in 2010 were a rebuke of the Democrats’ failures to put the economy back on track. There is no better surrogate to again help us lead this debate than our House colleague and friend, Chairman Paul Ryan.”

But the devil has always been in the details of the Ryan budget, and hours after Romney announced his pick, the effects were already rippling across down-ticket races in Democratic territory and toss-up contests.

In swing districts like Virginia’s 2nd, the DCCC immediately shot out press releases seeking to tie GOP candidates to Ryan and his budget. “Congressman Scott Rigell (VA-02) has a new running mate: Congressman Paul Ryan’s Republican budget that ends Medicare,” Democrats wrote.

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In Connecticut, where Linda McMahon is fighting for the GOP nod to replace retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Mirror’s front page led with the headline “Ryan Pick Brings Trouble for Connecticut Republicans.”

McMahon’s campaign told the paper, “Linda McMahon will never support a budget that cuts Medicare,” while a spokesman for Republican Andrew Roraback, who is running in the Fifth District House race, said the Ryan budget "had parts [Roraback] likes and parts he doesn’t like."

A slew of polls show that Ryan’s budget could be quicksand for Republican candidates if voters believe he would end Medicare or change retirees’ benefits. All but four current House members voted to approve the details of the Ryan budget, while Democrats will make sure the rest of the GOP hopefuls take a stand on it one way or another.

The latest Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 79 percent of registered voters oppose reducing Medicare benefits. A Democracy Corps battle ground poll called the Ryan budget “the last straw” for swing voters in Republican congressional districts, with 72 percent of seniors and 60 percent of independents saying they have very serious or serious doubts about a Ryan plan that would put more of the cost of Medicare on seniors.

Democrats point to special elections in New York and Arizona as examples where the Medicare issue worked powerfully for their candidates, including in New York’s Republican-leaning 26th District, where Democrats Kathy Hochul won a three-way race in which the Ryan budget popped up as a key issue, and in Arizona’s 8th District, where Ron Barber, a former aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hammered his Republican opponent’s position on phasing out Medicare.

But the Democracy Corps poll also showed that if voters are told that Republicans are trying to “save Medicare” from the bankruptcy that all agree is looming for the bloated program, 52 percent support the changes.

At the House and Senate level, Republican campaign aides acknowledge privately there’s no use avoiding the details of the Ryan budget. Instead they are urging their candidates to take the Medicare issue head on so that they can move onto better ground on jobs and the economy.

“You have a knife fight on Medicare and we’re ready to do that,” a top GOP aide said. “We know what the attacks are going to be, and we’ll have a strategy of attacking and inoculating.”

Specifically, Republicans are already attacking Democrats on the $500 billion in cuts to the growth of Medicare included in the president’s health care reform bill, while telling their candidates to frame the Ryan budget as saving Medicare for future generations.

That’s how Republican Rep. Mark Amodei framed his position the latest special election for Nevada’s Second District—attacking his Democratic opponent for supporting health-care reform and releasing an ad that featured his own mother saying Amodei would fight to protect Medicare benefits for seniors.

But the one person who does not seem ready for a knife fight on Medicare or a battle over the Ryan budget is Ryan’s new boss. At a stop in St. Augustine, Fla., on Monday, Romney assured a capacity crowd that he and Ryan “want to make sure that we preserve and protect Medicare.”

And during their first joint interview with CBS’s Bob Schieffer, Romney shut down any talk about his new running mate’s old budget proposals, though he did attack the Affordable Care Act’s cuts to Medicare.

“Well, I have my budget plan as you know that I’ve put out,” Romney said. “And that’s the budget plan that we’re going to run on.”