While it’s a bad year to be running as a Democrat in any state, that’s especially true in Wisconsin. Despite winning the state with 56 percent of the vote in 2008, Barack Obama has seen his approval rating in the state plummet nearly 30 points since taking office. Voters opposed Obamacare to begin with, and now a majority wants it repealed. Two-thirds say they are angry about the federal government’s policies.
As a result, Badger State Democrats are scrambling to distance themselves from, well, other Democrats. Sen. Russ Feingold, in the fight of his political life against Republican Ron Johnson, can’t make up his mind about appearing with the president in public. In the 7th district, state lawmaker Julie Lassa, the Democrat running to succeed Rep. David Obey (D), outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is running on an anti-earmark (i.e. anti-Obey) platform. Her first campaign ad, in which she promises to bring fiscal responsibility to Washington, “could easily have been made by the Texas Tea Party,” says Kenneth R. Mayer, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Democrats in Wisconsin are facing a contentious Senate race and three highly competitive House races in the 3rd, 7th, and 8th congressional districts. As their numbers continue to fall in the polls, the state’s Democrats, who lack a single popular policy item to run on this cycle, seem to have settled on a well-worn strategy — accusing their opponents of wanting to take away Social Security.
Mayer calls this a “classic Democratic campaign technique” that, more often than not, signals weakness. “The [Social Security] issue is the last assault a Democrat can make when they feel like they’re losing,” he says.
Wisconsin Democrats are clearly feeling the heat, because their attacks have become increasingly outrageous — and often just plain false. If one peruses the non-partisan fact-checking website PolitiFact Wisconsin and comes across a statement with a rating of “Pants on Fire,” reserved for only “the most ridiculous falsehoods,” odds are it was made by a Democrat, and had something to do with Social Security.
In its first independent expenditure ad of the election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee accused Lassa’s opponent, Republican Sean Duffy, of wanting to privatize Social Security. “When we should be fighting to protect Social Security, Sean Duffy backed a plan to privatize it,” the ad states.
That’s simply not true. This is part of a broader effort by the DCCC to cast all proponents of Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” as supporters of private Social Security accounts overseen by shady Wall Street brokers.
“Remember the crash?” the ad continues. “Families could have lost 40 percent of their retirement benefits.”
Politifact says this claim is not only false, but “ridiculously so.” Duffy told the Wausau Daily Herald that “privatizing [Social Security] is not an option.” A statement on his campaign website reads: “I have not and will not endorse privatizing Social Security.”
It is not surprising that Lassa is seeking, however dishonestly, to make Social Security a campaign issue in the 7th district, where 16 percent of residents are 65 years or older — the highest proportion in any of the state’s eight districts. She probably would like to avoid discussing her support for Obamacare and, even more troubling, her support for a Canadian-style health care system for Wisconsin.
Rep. Steve Kagen, the Democrat who represents the 8th district, goes one step farther, using a wildly out-of-context remark to accuse his opponent Reid Ribble of wanting to end Social Security all together. The ad quotes Ribble, speaking at a campaign forum last year, saying: “Somehow how we have to establish a phase-out of the current Social Security system.”
Here’s what else Ribble said: “Somehow we have to establish a phase-out of the current Social Security system to a new system, and that will have to happen over time.”
Perhaps more ridiculous is the part of the ad that refers to Kagen’s opponent as “Politician Reid Ribble,” even though Ribble has never held or sought political office until now — he ran a commercial roofing business. Verdict: “Pants on Fire.”
Kagen, who was famously filmed on Capitol Hill boasting about how he was helping to write health-care-reform legislation, has plenty of reasons to resort to Social Security smear tactics.
One of the many reasons that passing Obamacare, over the loud objections of the American public, has created so many problems for Democrats is that it has rendered useless another one of their favorite campaign tactics — accusing Republicans of wanting to cut funding for Medicare. Now they are struggling to defend a law that will do just that.
The GOP has effectively exploited this new weakness, airing dozens of ads for Republican candidates across the country in which senior citizens offer variations of the line “(insert Democratic candidate) voted with Nancy Pelosi to cut my Medicare by half a trillion dollars.”
In their attempt to appeal to seniors, who reliably turn out in large numbers for midterm elections, Democrats are stuck with jaded accusations about Social Security. “Most of [the claims about Social Security] are so over the top that people will just shrug their shoulders,” Mayer says. “It won’t end up changing many minds; they’re used to hearing it.”
Wisconsin Republicans are not impressed. “The Democrats are going full force on false attacks in order to not talk about spending and debt because those are the two things the electorate is most focused on, as well as jobs,” says state GOP chairman Reince Priebus. “They’re doing it because if they made this race a referendum on ‘Are you happy about Obamacare?’ ‘Are you happy about stimulus?’ The answer would be ‘absolutely not,’” he added.
Those are fair questions, though it seems that Democrats are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid them.
— Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.