In early 2011, Republican pollster John McLaughlin was at a meeting of Hill leaders, including Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. Ryan was briefing those present on his soon-to-be-released budget plan.
“There was a lot of talk about what they were doing with Medicare,” McLaughlin recounts, “and I remember Paul saying all he was doing was taking the savings from the cuts that Obama had made and was restoring basically the cuts to the seniors for those 55 and older, and then he was changing it where you were going to have premium support for those under 55.”
For McLaughlin, that was a revelation: “The light went off in my head that the Democrats were cutting Medicare $500 billion,” he says.
Since then, the estimate on the Medicare cuts caused by Obamacare has risen from $500 billion to $716 billion. Already, the Romney campaign has released an ad that slams Obama for cutting Medicare. And the history of a congressional race in Nevada in 2011 suggests that highlighting the Medicare cuts in Obamacare could allow Romney (and Republicans across the country) to neutralize — or even win on — the Medicare issue.
The race in Nevada’s second congressional district was between Republican Mark Amodei, a former state senator, and Democrat Kate Marshall, the Nevada state treasurer. It was a special election to replace Dean Heller, who had been appointed senator after John Ensign’s resignation. The district had a 5 point Republican advantage, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, but John McCain had won there by only 89 votes in 2008.
From the beginning, Amodei’s advisers anticipated Medicare attacks. “We knew the Democrats would attack on Medicare because they had done that in every special election up to that point, and had done it pretty successfully,” says Jay Parmer, who ran Amodei’s campaign.
Fresh in everyone’s mind was the special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District, where Democrat Kathy Hochul had beat Republican Jane Corwin, 47 percent to 42 percent. That district had a plus 6 Republican advantage, per the Cook Index. But Hochul’s Medicare attacks, it was widely believed, had succeeded in giving her a win — although a fake Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, complicated the race by securing 9 percent of the vote.
Amodei’s advisers — including McLaughlin, who was the campaign pollster — were determined that there would be no repeat of the Corwin loss. Marshall was on the record supporting Obamacare, and that gave them the proof they needed that she backed Medicare cuts.
“The centerpiece of our confidence level in dealing with the issue was that if you voted for Obamacare, or in the case of this open seat, you vocally expressed support for Obamacare, you were actually supporting all of the mechanics of that, which included a $500 billion cut in Medicare,” Parmer says. “The Democrats were throwing rocks at the Republicans, but they were living in a glass house on the issue.”