Reporting from Washington — The day after Jesse Kelly won the Republican primary in Arizona's 8th Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Gabrielle Giffords went on the air with a lacerating attack. Noting that Kelly said he ultimately wanted to eliminate Social Security, Giffords' television ad warned that Kelly "is a risk we can't afford."
Kelly, a construction manager with no political experience, had made the mistake of venturing into the mine-strewn politics of Social Security. No matter that he said he would preserve benefits for current retirees. The fact that he once described it as "the biggest pyramid scheme in history" gave his rival the equivalent of cannon fodder in a district where nearly one-fifth of the population is older than 65.
Kelly is now running his own ad vowing to "honor our commitment to seniors," trying to fend off a line of assault that Democrats are stepping up throughout the country. It's one of the few consistent themes in Democratic campaign commercials in a year when the party has otherwise eschewed a national message.
Accusing Republicans of wanting to do away with Social Security is a well-worn trope for Democrats. But a slew of "tea party"-backed candidates who have called for privatizing or eliminating the program have given Democrats fresh ammunition at a time when they are on the defensive about healthcare reform and the economic stimulus.
The strategy allows Democrats to link their rivals to former President George W. Bush, who sought to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market.
"And because it has also become a rallying cry among some of the tea party movement … it's an indicator of how far to the right and how extreme a position the Republican candidates are taking," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has devoted the majority of its spots to slamming House GOP candidates on the topic.
Republicans, however, complain that their rivals are distorting their position.
"There have been numerous fact-checks and editorials calling out Democrats for their Social Security attacks," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Democrats are desperately trying to scare seniors."
"This is what a Democrat says when they're losing an argument," said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. "If they're saying this, it means they don't have anything else to say."
Nevertheless, Norquist advises GOP candidates to steer clear of Social Security on the campaign trail: "It's too easy to demagogue."
Indeed, it's a testament to the political thorniness of the subject that most Republicans are strenuously avoiding it now that the primaries have passed. While Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proposed personal retirement accounts for younger workers in his "Roadmap for America's Future" economic plan this year, the GOP "Pledge to America" released last week does not address how to reform Social Security, whose outlays will regularly exceed its revenue beginning in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.
But Democrats are still feeding off comments made by their GOP rivals earlier in the year. In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid weaves it into nearly every spot he runs against Republican Sharron Angle, who has backed away from earlier statements that she would phase out Social Security. A commercial for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) includes footage of GOP rival Ken Buck calling Social Security "a horrible policy," words Buck later said he regretted.
A commercial for Rep. Baron P. Hill (D-Ind.) spotlights a clip of GOP challenger Todd Young calling the program "a Ponzi scheme." And a new ad by Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark argues that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) views seniors as addicts, noting that she said she wants to "wean everybody off" Social Security.
"In the past, the Democrats had to strain and work hard to convey the risk of a Republican victory to Social Security," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the program. "This year, it's low-hanging fruit … because there are prominent Republicans running for the Senate and House who have very publicly and clearly raised questions about future of Social Security."
But in some races, Democrats have taken more generic comments by GOP candidates as evidence of their antipathy to the entitlement. In Wisconsin, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has run three ads asserting that former prosecutor Sean Duffy, the GOP nominee for an open House seat, supports a plan to privatize Social Security. "Sean Duffy may not be worried about his retirement security, but the rest of us are," stated one, featuring images of the onetime star of MTV's "The Real World" climbing into a purple SUV.