House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), left, and Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.)… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The addition of Rep. Paul D. Ryan to the GOP presidential ticket has upended the congressional campaigns as the battle for the House and Senate swiftly focused on one main issue: Medicare.
As the architect of the GOP's Medicare overhaul hit the campaign trail alongside presumed presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the complicated policy issue was catapulted into the national spotlight.
Suddenly, Americans began hearing Ryan's vision to change the healthcare safety net for the next generation of seniors at a volume that had not been reached before — despite multiple House and Senate votes on the budget proposal.
Both Democrats and Republicans immediately saw their path to the congressional majority through the vice presidential pick's austere fiscal plan.
By Tuesday of last week, phones were ringing in 50 House Republican lawmakers' districts, where an automated call told voters their representative had voted for Ryan's Medicare blueprint while also extending tax breaks for the wealthy.
"This is Julie calling from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to alert you to a new development about Medicare," the robo-call began, before the recorded voice explained the turn of events. "That is just wrong."
Two days later, outside groups that are aligned with GOP priorities, including one run by a former top aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), were dialing up voters in 42 other districts, reminding them of President Obama's healthcare plan and urging them to tell their Democratic representative "to repeal Obamacare and stop cutting seniors' Medicare."
As a campaign issue, Medicare is particularly potent because seniors are likely to come to the polls. Under Ryan's proposal, future seniors, those now 55 and younger, would have the option of taking a government stipend to buy insurance on the private market or apply it toward the costs of Medicare — though it is not guaranteed that the funds would cover the price of joining the traditional Medicare program.
The latest poll from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, conducted before the vice presidential pick thrust the issue into the national debate, found that 58% of Americans preferred to keep Medicare as is, while 36% supported Ryan's approach.
The chairman of the House Democratic campaign effort, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, said Ryan's ascent presented a "golden opportunity."
"Your job for the next 80 days is simple: Take the national debate about Medicare that Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket has given us, and win this battle in your district," Israel said in a weekend memo to candidates.
Mike Shields, political director of the House GOP's campaign team, countered, "We want this fight," in his own memo to Republican candidates. "Our message to Democrats who would rather scare seniors than fix our broken economy is to bring it on."
The outcome of the Ryan pick remains unclear for both sides as Republicans seek to maintain their majority in the House and wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
"Ryan's selection could potentially change the dynamic in the fight for Congress," wrote Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, by giving Democratic candidates "a potentially important narrative to appeal to swing voters." But, he added, "I'm skeptical that the Ryan pick will fundamentally change many races."
Congressional Republicans want to try to keep the focus of the campaign on jobs.
"We need to stay on offense on jobs and the economy," House Speaker John A. Boehner(R-Ohio) told lawmakers, who are in home districts this month, on an hourlong conference call.
Boehner has been crisscrossing the country, including a West Coast swing for California lawmakers, as he seeks to retain his majority — and his position as speaker.
The House has voted twice to approve the Ryan plan, and lawmakers on the call were "pretty pumped up," as one lawmaker put it, that the architect of the budget was chosen for the presidential ticket.
Boehner did not tell his troops to shy away from those votes. He encouraged lawmakers to "play offense" by positioning themselves as "the only ones taking action on these things." The Ryan budget was defeated in the Senate, and Obama's budget won no votes.
The November election can be seen as a referendum on Obama's record, as Republicans prefer, or a choice between the two parties and their different approaches to government. For Democrats, Romney's selection of Ryan shifts the attention away from Obama and toward Ryan's vision for the nation — the so-called choice election Republicans have been trying to avoid.
A Democratic strategist, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, suggested Senate candidates remind voters of the other component of the Ryan budget — tax breaks for wealthier households — a topic that polls show has little support.
The Schumer memo was seen as an acknowledgment by Democrats that debt issues remain crucial concerns for some voters, particularly independent voters who can swing elections in statewide Senate races.
One Democratic strategist said Friday that the party had its work cut out for it in bringing attention to the Ryan plan, as voters were not aware of the votes in Congress.
"They hadn't necessarily heard about it and they were skeptical to believe it," the strategist said. "That changed overnight when Ryan was put on the ticket."