GOP nominee for Giffords's seat reverses course on entitlements

After three years of saying that Social Security and Medicare must be phased out, the Republican nominee to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) has reversed course.

Jesse Kelly, who won a four-way GOP special primary in April, has updated his campaign website to say that entitlement programs for seniors must be protected.

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"I support preserving, protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare," Kelly wrote on the website. "I do not support privatizing, eliminating or phasing out these programs in any way."

But in a televised debate in 2010 — the year Kelly came within 2 points of unseating Giffords — Kelly was asked whether entitlements should be privatized.

“Right now, you have to take steps to reform it, to privatize it, to phase it out," Kelly said.

The Tea Party favorite and Iraq War veteran added that entitlements are not welfare programs, and that people have paid into them for their entire lives "because the government has stolen their money."

"You need to fulfill your promises in the near future while phasing out future generations, taking steps to privatize, vouchers, everything," he said. "It’s not an option of should it be done. It must be done."

In other interviews, which Democrats have used as the basis for ads calling Kelly the wrong choice for Arizona seniors, Kelly took similar stances.

He told the Tucson Weekly in 2009 that Medicare should be privatized and that he would look at eventually eliminating Medicare. He also said tax credits should be offered to make private insurance more affordable.

"And that, in turn, in the future, will help save Medicare dollars because you won't be on the public dole, and you're phasing it out," he said.

Screenshots from earlier versions of Kelly's website, obtained by The Hill, show that as recently as April 18, Kelly suggested that Social Security should eventually be at least partially privatized.

"We will fully honor benefits for current retirees" and those currently paying into the system, the website said. "Younger workers should have the choice of allocating a portion of their contribution into a personal retirement account in their name."

Kelly spokesman John Ellinwood denied that there had been any change of position. 

"Back in 2009 and today, Jesse has always said that we must honor our commitment to seniors because they've paid into this system and they deserve the benefits — and we will do that," said Ellinwood.

Asked whether that meant that Kelly supported phasing the programs out for future generations, Ellinwood declined to elaborate and said the stance listed on the website reflects Kelly's position.

Entitlements and issues related to senior citizens have played a central role in the race between Kelly and Democrat Ron Barber, the former Giffords aide who is running to finish her term. Giffords stepped down from the House in January — one year after a shooting spree in her district in which both she and Barber were injured.

Both Barber and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have been on the air with ads attacking Kelly for supporting the elimination of Medicare.

But Kelly and the National Republican Congressional Committee have shot back with their own ads, arguing that because Barber supported the Affordable Care Act, he supported a $500 billion cut to Medicare that was part of President Obama's healthcare care reform law.

Independent fact-checkers have deemed that claim factually correct, but misleading.