Republicans strategists are worried that Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) addition to the presidential ticket will cost their party House and Senate seats this fall.
Their concern: Democrats will successfully demonize Ryan’s budget plan, which contains controversial spending cuts and changes to Medicare.
Many Republicans in tough races this year, especially in the House, voted for Ryan’s proposal, which makes it hard for them to distance themselves from it.
And while Republicans are expected to keep the House, the more seats they lose, the closer the Democrats will be to a takeover in 2014. The Senate is too close to call; the GOP only needs to gain four seats (if President Obama wins reelection) to take control.
A number of senior Republican House and Senate strategists, speaking anonymously so they could be candid about their party’s vice presidential pick, acknowledged Ryan was good for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney but expressed concern about his effect on congressional races.
While few Republicans said having Ryan on the ticket would help them, they argued they can neutralize the budget issue by attacking Democrats for cutting $700 billion from Medicare in their healthcare reform law.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) circulated a memo to lawmakers and candidates on Monday, obtained by The Hill, that they say offers a road map for winning the debate over Ryan’s proposal.
It calls for candidates to follow the model the party used to win an open seat in Nevada last summer in which now-Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) hammered his Democratic opponent on the spending cuts.
The main focus of such a strategy, according to a slideshow and video circulated by NRCC Political Director Mike Shields, is to stay on the offense and tie Democrats to Obama’s healthcare law, an argument Republicans believe they can win.
The presentation tells candidates to fight back on Medicare until the issue becomes a tie then refocus the debate on the economy. To do so, Republicans are advised to tie their opponent unequivocally to Obama’s law, highlight the law’s cuts to Medicare and offer counter-messaging that uses credible outside spokespeople — like seniors, or, in Amodei’s case, his mother — to convince seniors that Republicans are in the right on the issue.
Publicly, the NRCC remains bullish on the issue.
“House Republicans are ready for this fight,” Shields said in a statement to reporters. “With Paul Ryan as his running mate, Governor Romney has made a statement to the American people — it’s time to get our debt under control and offer job creators the solutions that will restore American prosperity and protect the free enterprise system. But first, we owe it to the American people to hold Democrats accountable for gutting Medicare and using it to build their government takeover of healthcare.”
Former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who chaired the NRCC from 2003-2006, warned that he foresaw in this election shades of President George W. Bush’s fight to create a voucher program for Social Security early in his second term, which many say cost the GOP seats in 2006.
“You saw what happened to Bush with Social Security in the 2006 election,” he said. “This is déjà vu.”
Reynolds predicted the “media frenzy” over Ryan would die down soon and that ongoing economic struggles of voters would play a much larger role in this year’s elections, but he warned that Romney and Ryan need to get ahead of the story and define themselves before Democrats do it for them.
“This next couple weeks is what this is about, Ryan getting vetted. They should use that time to further explain Romney-Ryan as they see it relative to entitlements including Medicare. If they don't define themselves for it Democrats will do it for them,” he said. “If that happens I still think it'll get back to jobs and the economy first and foremost.”
He also commended Republican House candidates like Maggie Brooks and Chris Collins — both Republicans running in New York — for “accepting no responsibility” for Ryan’s plan.
A number of Republicans expressed optimism that countering Democratic attacks with criticism of the healthcare law, which polls show to be unpopular, would work.
“I still think we're able to neutralize the Ryan budget. That part doesn’t change just because he's on the ticket ... they have their talking point, we have ours,” a Republican said. “This does bring the budget to the forefront more than it would otherwise but the House Democrats were running on this anyways and we were already going to hit them on the Medicare cuts.”
But one Republican strategist who’d seen the NRCC’s memo worried that the plan offered little new advice, and having Ryan at the top of the ticket lent additional credibility to Democrats on the issue.
“It becomes more difficult. The Republican argument and Democrat argument on Medicare now aren't on equal footing anymore — Ryan being on the top of the ticket gives Democrats more credibility,” the strategist said. “There's going to be more resonance when the Democrats attack our guys. It's going to be a part of the national discussion, there's going to be more credibility on this now, and we're not going to be able to wave them off as nonsense.“
The mixed Republican response to the pick indicates just how tricky it will be for some to implement the Nevada strategy.
Some who have already voted for the plan praised Romney’s selection, including Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is running in a competitive Senate race in senior-heavy Arizona.
“Certainly you want to get out and talk about it and remind people that the Democrats have no plan,” Flake said, asserting that Democrats are “scare tactics” because they’re “underestimating the intelligence of the electorate out there.”
Others were less eager.
In a Democratic-leaning Massachusetts district, businessman John Tisei (R) balked at Rep. John Tierney’s (D-Mass.) effort to tie him to the vice presidential pick.
“I’m going to Washington to do the right thing for the country, and I’m not going to be rubber stamped for anyone or anything,” he said, careful to point out that, in particular, he doesn’t support Ryan’s plan to shift control of Medicaid to the states.