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Can Social Security save Democrats this fall?

Democrats, faced with a worsening national political climate and daunting historical midterm election trends, are turning to Social Security as an issue where they believe they can score political points and set the stakes of what a Republican-controlled Congress would look like.

At least a half-dozen Democratic House candidates as well as several Democratic Senators in tight re-election races have featured claims that the GOP wants to either privatize or eliminate the retirement plan entirely in new television ads, and party strategists promise there are far more commercials to come.

"When Leader John Boehner, Paul Ryan and House Republican leaders put privatizing Social Security and dismantling Medicare into their budget they drew a bright line: House Republicans fight for Wall Street, while Democrats fight for seniors who've worked hard and played by the rules," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Jen Crider.

A new ad from Indiana Rep. Baron Hill (D) is indicative of the tone and content of Democrats' attacks on Social Security.


The ad opens with footage of attorney Todd Young, Hill's Republican opponent in the southern Indiana district, calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and then features a series of testimonials from older citizens of the district rejecting the idea that Social Security amounts to a "social welfare" program. "Todd Young is not for us," says a woman at the ad's conclusion.

Ads in being run by Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Allen Boyd (Fla.), Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) take a similar strategic tack -- painting Republicans as in favor of drastically changing the retirement program.

And, in Wisconsin's open 7th district, an ad funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's independent expenditure arm -- its first this cycle -- goes after reality TV star Sean Duffy (R) for supporting a plan to privatize Social Security and describes it as "the wrong choice for Wisconsin's families."

(The Social Security ads are coming fast and furious on the Senate side too. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and appointed Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet have recently aired commercials attacking their opponents' position on the retirement system.)

The strategy behind the Democratic attacks is simple. Older voters are deeply suspicious of any changes to the retirement program -- it's not an accident that Social Security is referred to as the "third rail of American politics" -- and they also happen to be the most reliable voters in lower turnout midterm elections.

According to exit polling from the 2006 midterms, nearly three in ten (29 percent) of voters were 60 and older; Democrats won that age group 50 percent to 48 percent.

Republicans dismiss the Democratic strategy as an age-old attempt to change the subject. "This is a transparent attempt to distract from their budget busting, job-killing policies that have left voters asking the simple question that Democrats still can't answer: 'Where are the jobs,'" said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Ken Spain.

(Spain also noted that the independent FactCheck.org website disputed Democratic claims that Republicans are "eager" to privatize Social Security.)

And, according to several recent polls, Social Security barely registers as an issue on most voters minds. In an August Gallup poll, just one percent of respondents called Social Security the most pressing issue facing the country (65 percent named the economy) and in a Kaiser poll conducted in mid-August just two percent said they would like to hear candidates talking about Social Security on the campaign trail.

Democratic strategists are aware of the polling data on Social Security but believe it is a gateway issue for voters that will allow their candidates to talk about other ways in which a Republican majority would be bad for average Americans.

Remember that the only way that Democrats believe they can keep their losses at or below historic levels is to make the midterm elections a choice between the two parties rather than a referendum on a Democratic-controlled Washington.

Social Security, they argue, is a key piece to make that "choice" case. Make sure to watch the poll numbers in the districts where Democrats are on the attack on it; if they don't move in the next few weeks, they may not move at all.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 1, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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