WASHINGTON – Rick Scott said it. Republican candidates have featured it in ads. And even President Donald Trump leaned into it during a rally last month.
Two months before Election Day, some Republicans have embraced an unexpected new way to attack Democratic candidates: The party of Medicare for All, they charge, actually wants to take away Medicare from senior citizens.
It’s an attack Democrats hotly contest, dismissing it as proof positive the GOP is failing to find a winning message in a challenging political climate.
But Republicans see an opening to capitalize politically on the Democratic Party’s growing support for Medicare for All, a controversial and far-reaching policy adopted by many House Democratic candidates this year. What Medicare for All entails varies from candidate to candidate – but at its heart it means using government programs to expand access to health care, including proposals such as letting people buy into Medicare regardless of age.
“If you want to protect Medicare, vote Republican,” tweeted Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Senate candidate, on Thursday. “If you want a socialist experiment with Medicare, by all means vote Democrat.”
Republicans say the proposal smacks of liberal overreach, and they are certainly making the standard fiscally conservative arguments about its potential costs. But in some places, including in several more blue-collar congressional districts that swung for Donald Trump in 2016, candidates and their allies also argue the plan’s cost would jeopardize Medicare’s current beneficiaries.
It’s not the only way to criticize Medicare for All, they say, but it’s a criticism they think will resonate with some core constituencies.
“Seniors don’t like it because it changes Medicare for them,” said Matt Gorman, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, as he detailed what he sees as the political complications of Medicare for All. “It’s something that’s very potent with a bunch of different folks.”
The criticism has appeared in several ads from vulnerable Republican incumbents, including Reps. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, and Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd Congressional District.
Blum’s ad, obtained by McClatchy through a Democratic media buyer, accuses Democratic candidate Abby Finkenauer of trying to get rid of private health insurance and “end Medicare as we know it.” Poliquin’s spot uses similar language.
Tenney’s ad, meanwhile, used House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to criticize Democratic candidate Anthony Brindisi.
“Pelosi is at it again, pushing a dangerous Medicare for All scheme that could bankrupt Medicare,” it said.
Brad Todd, a veteran Republican strategist, said the pro-Medicare messaging plays especially well with voters who backed Barack Obama but then voted for Trump in 2016. And indeed, both Blum of Iowa and Poliquin of Maine represent Obama-Trump districts, while Obama narrowly lost Tenney’s district before Trump won it big.
Democrats universally support Medicare, which – along with Social Security and Medicaid – forms the heart of a social safety net the party has vowed to protect. And plans to increase health care access don’t call for redirecting funds from Medicare to pay for the expansion – even most proposals for a full single-payer system leave Medicare untouched.
But attempts to expand benefits have previously left Democrats vulnerable to criticism that they were undermining existing entitlement programs.
That’s what happened earlier this decade, when Republicans argued that the Affordable Care Act cut funding to Medicare. The attack was widely adopted by Republican candidates, and party strategists say it was an effective way to blunt accusations that their party wanted to cut entitlement programs.
Democrats also acknowledged the potency of such attacks at the time. But they say the environment changed after the GOP attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year: Health care, they say, is once again an issue they plan to campaign heavily on this fall.
If the GOP wants to make the election about health care, Democrats say they welcome the conversation with voters.
“If we are fighting campaigns on health care, we are winning,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from August found Democrats had an 18-point advantage on health care, up significantly since the same poll was taken in the aftermath of the ACA’s implementation in 2013 and 2014.
Democrats add that the criticisms on Medicare are just the latest line of attack from a party that resorted to a kitchen-sink approach as Election Day nears, talking about everything from kneeling NFL players to sanctuary cities.
“There’s no question Republicans are going to try to throw spaghetti against the wall on health care,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “But when the walls are closing in on them, spaghetti isn’t going to stop them.”
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