Mitt Romney’s choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate recalibrated the presidential race, turning it from a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy into a national debate over the size of government and the shape of Medicare.
Conservatives cheered the selection because it included a clear-cut endorsement by the Republican standard-bearer of Ryan’s plan to reduce the deficit by overhauling the government’s largest entitlement program. In their view, a Romney victory this fall becomes a mandate to make sweeping changes in Medicare and other entitlement programs.
But carrying out that mandate will require Republicans regaining control of the Senate for the first time in six years, something that may become a lot more difficult because of the Ryan pick. All politics are local, as Massachusetts House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say, and many of the key races in this year’s battle for the Senate will take place in states where bold plans to change Medicare are not exactly what graying voters were hoping to hear.
Most analysts say the race to win the Senate is too close to call. Democrats currently have a narrow 53-47 margin with Republicans needing to pick up just four seats to win a majority. With 23 of the 33 open seats belonging to Democrats or their independent allies, most observers until earlier this year had believed a Republican takeover was likely.
But many races tightened in the spring. And now, with the election less than three months away, the Cook Political Report has both parties at 45 seats either in their column or leaning their way. That leaves just ten races too close to call.
Those rated as toss-ups include Florida, Maine, Missouri, Montana and Wisconsin – all with large elderly and near-elderly populations for whom Medicare is a front-burner pocketbook issue. They will be bombarded by a steady stream of Democratic campaign ads this fall charging their Republican opponents are out to destroy “Medicare as you know it.” (No one currently over 55 would be affected.)
The Democrats will have plenty of money to run those ads. According to the latest report from the Center for Responsive Politics, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $77.8 million and still had $31.4 million cash on hand compared to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has raised $68.9 million and has $24.3 million in its coffers. However, Republicans have a major advantage in cash flow from secret SuperPACs, which can make independent expenditures on behalf of candidates without disclosing their donors.
The one place where everyone agrees Medicare ads will play a major role is Florida, where Senator Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, has been targeted by the rising Republican establishment in the state. The GOP will quickly unite behind Rep. Connie Mack IV after his win over a crowded primary field on Tuesday. However, the advantages of having a well-known name (Mack’s father served in the Senate) could be countered by a well-funded advertising campaign linking the challenger to changes in Medicare, which is not only important to seniors but is a bedrock of the state’s economy.
The Medicare issue also could save the career of Montana Senator Jon Tester, who faces a tough challenge from Denny Rehberg, the state’s Republican House member. Obama is very unpopular in the Big Sky state and Romney is expected to win handily.
So far, Tester has relied on campaign ads that stress his rancher roots and blast the money pouring in from out-of-state to support Rehberg. Now he has another issue. Over the next several months, he will remind voters that splitting their tickets is one way to insure they will not be subjected to radical changes in Medicare.
Ryan’s addition to the ticket could also sway the outcome in contests where even a small swing in key voting blocs like seniors or public employees could make the difference. Former Virginia governors Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) are facing off in a state that President Obama won handily in 2008 because of an outpouring of younger, more liberal voters in Washington, D.C. suburbs.
However, the area is heavily dependent on federal employment. Allen is already running away from the Ryan budget, whose huge cuts in the spending would economically damage the region.
The dynamic could even play out in Massachusetts, where Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the liberal-left for her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Board, is mounting a well-funded challenge to incumbent Republican Scott Brown, who won a surprising victory in 2010 to replace Ted Kennedy. Given that Obama is expected to win the state handily, Brown needs to convince hundreds of thousands of voters to split their tickets.
“Anything that adds to Scott Brown’s burden is a problem,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The Ryan choice just makes his job harder.”
Democrats also plan to use the Ryan budget in the hotly contested Indiana race, where Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock, who ousted incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in a May primary, is taking on Representative Joe Donnelly. “There’s no way for any candidate to avoid answering for the elements of the Ryan budget,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic campaign consultant with the Global Strategy Group, which is advising Donnelly. “Cuts in Pell grants, cuts in scientific research. It gives you a lot of things to pick apart. And the Medicare piece will be front and center.” The race in the heavily Republican state is now rated too close to call.
The math is still daunting for the Democrats. Retirement announcements in conservative states by popular Democrats like Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin put in play seats that otherwise would have been easily won by the incumbents.
But adding Ryan to the ticket has improved the chances that Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will be able to hold onto his job. “The Senate is a complete toss-up,” Sabato said. “A hundred million dollars is going to be spent on advertising (by both sides) to define Paul Ryan and his budget. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”