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.”
The team debated whether they should preemptively bring up Medicare, or wait for Marshall to attack. Ultimately, they decided to begin with a focus on economic issues, and see what Marshall did. “If Medicare did come up, we would counter it,” remembers Chris Henick, the campaign’s political consultant. “Our campaign felt strategically we wanted more of an ambush than an inoculation.”
Eventually, Marshall aired an attack ad focused on Medicare: “Amodei supports the Ryan plan that ends Medicare as we know it,” intoned the narrator.
Very quickly, the Amodei campaign struck back, running an ad that featured Amodei’s mom, Joy Amodei. “Why is Democrat Kate Marshall lying about Mark Amodei’s record on Medicare? Because Kate Marshall wants to cover up her support for a $500 billion Medicare cut,” said the narrator at the beginning.
But the spot ended on a personal note. “While Kate Marshall and her friends have already supported cuts to Medicare, you should know that I will work to support and improve the program,” Amodei himself said, before his mom said, “You’d better, Mark, I’m counting on you.” Amodei responded, “Okay, Ma, I’ll do my best.”
“The first Mediscare ad came from the Democrat,” recalls Rob Stuzman, Amodei’s media consultant, “and we immediately rotated in what we call our first Mom ad, which of course provides third-party validation that the candidate’s not out to end Medicare and throw people under the train.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee also ran an ad that blasted Marshall on Medicare. Marshall eventually went public with a second attack ad on Medicare; the Amodei campaign fought back with a second attack of its own, again featuring Joy Amodei. The Amodei campaign also sent mailers on Medicare to senior-citizen voters.
The results were astonishing. Before the ad aired in early August, Amodei was seen favorably by 28 percent of seniors and unfavorably by 19 percent. By the end of that month, he had 51 percent favorable ratings, and 25 percent unfavorable.
In early August, 39 percent of voters thought that Marshall “would better protect seniors on Medicare,” while 26 percent thought that of Amodei. At the month’s end, Marshall was down to 33 percent and Amodei was up to 41 percent. Among those who were 56 to 65, the change was even more dramatic. Initially, 46 percent of that age group saw Marshall as more likely to protect Medicare, while 18 percent viewed Amodei that way. At the end, 43 percent thought Amodei was more likely to protect seniors in the program, and 36 percent thought Marshall was.
Over the course of the race, the charge that Marshall was in favor of Obamacare (and thus, $500 billion in cuts to Medicare) had severely damaged her credibility in attacking Amodei on the issue. Meanwhile, Amodei not only neutralized the issue of Medicare, but eventually turned it into a positive. When Election Day came, Amodei won in a landslide, with 58 percent to Marshall’s 36 percent.
For Mike Shields, political director of the NRCC, the Nevada race shows that Republicans need to start showing a willingness to tackle Medicare directly. “They’re picking a fight on ground where they have a huge vulnerability,” he says of Democrats. “Republicans need to know that this is something we should not only engage in, but we should keep engaging in all the way through the election.”
“The takeaway,” he adds, “is that you have to play offense, that you have to lean into the fight because you can win it.”
– Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.