Seniors abandoned Democrats in droves last year as the party lost control of the House and clung to a narrow margin in the Senate. But House Republicans' position on the future of Medicare is providing what Democrats see as a golden opportunity to flip House seats in 2012, particularly in senior-heavy congressional districts.
Democratic Rep.-elect Kathy Hochul's victory last week in a special election in New York's 26th District was the spark. Hochul repeatedly hammered on the Medicare issue en route to a narrow win over Republican Jane Corwin in a once-reliable GOP district.
The weapon Hochul used was provided by Republicans themselves. On April 15, the GOP-controlled House passed a budget by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that included a plan to convert Medicare into a voucher program for Americans younger than 55. Only four Republicans voted against the budget. And Hochul and her Democratic allies repeatedly reminded voters of that.
But New York-26 is far from the most senior-heavy or left-leaning district in the Republican fold this year. Using that district as a benchmark, Democrats are already identifying and targeting districts with more favorable demographics for next year.
Sixty-three Republicans represent districts with a higher percentage of seniors than New York's 26th District, which at 15 percent is in the top quarter of House districts.
In 29 of those GOP districts, President Obama outperformed the 46.4 percent that New York-26 gave him in 2008.
Back in April, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other groups almost immediately began criticizing Republican members of Congress over their support for "ending Medicare as we know it." And since Hochul's win, the drumbeat has just gotten louder.
The DCCC and other Democratic groups, including Americans United for Change and House Majority PAC, have already launched ads and robocalls in 15 of those 63 districts, including five of the 10 most senior-heavy districts.
Twenty-eight of the 63 Republicans are freshmen, and nine of their districts have been targeted with ads centered on the House GOP's Medicare plan.
The pattern is most pronounced at the higher end of Obama's 2008 performance: in the 10 Republican, senior-heavy districts where the president won the most support in 2008, Democratic groups are running Medicare ads in eight of them.
The patterns are not accidental. "It's not something where we're throwing darts at the wall," said Lauren Weiner, the deputy communications director at Americans United for Change. "You're looking at who might be persuadable or have the right demography to be persuaded, so oftentimes now we're looking at seniors."
In freshman GOP Rep. Lou Barletta's Pennsylvania district, a DCCC ad bluntly tells listeners, "Under the Barletta plan, Medicare ends." An Americans United for Change billboard campaign across the Midwest features a gloomy-looking elderly woman next to the words, "Don't privatize my Medicare."
Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP consultant in Pennsylvania, says the GOP needs to shrug off the attacks on Medicare and focus on its long-term economic message in the time before the 2012 election. "We always get a lot of that action here," Nicholas said of the Democratic ad on Medicare. "Since the mid-1980s, there have been two constants to Democratic attacks: [the Republican Party] is extreme, and it wants to hurt seniors. Those two arrows are permanently in the Democratic quiver, and they trot them out every couple of years and we go back and forth.... But no one's about to make any votes for 18 months."
In 2010, Republicans outpolled Democrats among seniors 59-38, the widest margin either party has enjoyed among seniors since 1986, according to exit polls. But Democrats hope their newfound efforts turn seniors back their way. After dominating Republicans in the age group in most elections in the 1980s and '90s, Democrats gradually lost their edge among the aged, to the point where seniors split down the middle even in 2006 and 2008. Young people and minorities are the key Democratic constituencies now, but some Democrats are now bullish about remaking gains with seniors.
"Medicare is sacred to seniors and to a lot of people who will be seniors some day, and the idea of privatization is a horrible non-starter to a lot of people," Weiner said. "So I think that seniors will definitely be an important group that will be making their voices heard."
Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the DCCC, said seniors were one of the critical groups Democrats leveraged in New York last week and hope to persuade again in 2012. "The outcome in NY-26 shows that seniors and independents have a serious case of buyer's remorse," Ferguson wrote in an e-mail.
The National Republican Congressional Committee did not respond to a request for comment.