For Dems, a problem with seniors

Democrats are facing a senior problem that could get even worse this year.

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The party has traditionally had trouble with older voters, losing the group aged 65 and older by 21 points in 2010 — when Republicans picked up 63 seats — and by 12 points in the 2012 presidential race.

Seniors are the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc in midterm years, turning out in higher numbers than Democratic base voters. A recent Gallup poll showed seniors have become even more Republican over the last two decades; in 2013, 48 percent considered themselves Republican.

That spells trouble for Democrats, who are already facing a difficult midterm climate. Doug Thornell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said it is imperative to close the gap his party faced in the last midterm cycle.

“Democrats have to perform better with seniors than they did in 2010. They got shellacked with seniors in 2010. I don’t think the goal here is to win, but I definitely think the goal is to narrow the gap,” he said.

After a rough few months with the rocky rollout of ObamaCare, Democrats are more optimistic because of better-than-expected healthcare enrollment numbers. But Republicans are pledging to continue to hammer Democrats on the law.

Of particular concern to seniors are the proposed 2015 cuts to the popular Medicare Advantage program, which might be finalized Monday.

The cuts could hurt most in retiree-heavy states, where Democrats face some of their toughest House races, such as Florida and Arizona, as well as New York, Colorado, Minnesota and California — all states with higher than average enrollment in Medicare Advantage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Democrats lost a critical Florida special election last month in which seniors were crucial in the GOP’s victory.

To try to mitigate potential fallout, a number of vulnerable Democrats have joined Republicans in calling on the administration to keep Medicare Advantage rates flat, thus avoiding cutting benefits for seniors. Rep. John Barrow (Ga.) and Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) are among those making this argument. All three are among Republicans’ top targets in November.

Republicans have already pounced on the issue. One major GOP group, American Action Network, launched a $1 million campaign hitting nine vulnerable senators and House members with TV, digital and mail advertising on the Medicare Advantage cuts.

Andrea Bozek, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said more potent attacks will come after the administration announces its final decision on cuts on Monday.

“Whatever that number is, you will see [it] in TV ads across the country, especially during a midterm cycle,” she said.

Democrats counter that Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget gives them a chance to fight back on Medicare, however. They point to the fact that it contains Ryan’s longstanding proposal to partially privatize Medicare through an optional premium support system, which Democrats have charged “ends Medicare as we know it.”

“They are, once again, on Thursday going to vote to end the Medicare guarantee and raise premiums,” said one national Democratic strategist. “That’s regularly a top-testing argument in polling — ending the Medicare guarantee, ending Medicare as you know it.”

But that argument might be tougher to make this time around due to a change to the Ryan budget. The new plan removes the cap on Medicare spending per beneficiary that was included in previous proposals to ensure long-term savings for the program.

With the cap, Democrats were able to claim that, if Medicare costs skyrocketed, seniors would be left footing a higher bill because the government would only subsidize so much of those costs. The new budget might give Republicans an escape from that attack.

Thornell counseled Democrats to make sure voters know about moves like that one from Republicans, including the fact that Ryan’s budget actually includes savings from the Medicare Advantage cuts in ObamaCare that Republicans so oppose.

“Democrats have to take the fight to Republicans on the issue. They can’t assume that voters are just going to see through it, and they can’t assume that they are as informed on the ins and outs of Medicare Advantage and some of the other scare tactics from Republicans,” he said.

He points out that Medicare Advantage enrollment rates have actually risen since the passage of the Affordable Care act, surging nearly 10 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to a Kaiser Foundation analysis.

Aside from fighting back on Medicare Advantage, Democrats are hoping to make a broader appeal to seniors by pointing to the benefits they enjoy under ObamaCare, and how Republicans, if they succeeded in repealing the law, would do away with them.

“Democrats are committed to making sure that our healthcare system works, and we will work to improve the Affordable Care Act — not repealing it and taking us back to the days when insurance companies had free rein to raise rates and deny coverage,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Josh Schwerin. “Republicans’ repeal would end the Medicare guarantee and raise costs on seniors’ prescription drugs by $1,200 a person — immediately.”

Democrats are, in other words, abiding by Thornell’s most urgent piece of advice: “Don’t let yourself get kicked in the face. You’ve gotta go on offense.”

— This report was updated at 2:35 p.m.

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