On Medicare and Social Security, 12 Senate Races Worth Watching

240-us-senate-racesThe future of Medicare, Social Security and other programs for older Americans may well be shaped by these 12 key races for seats in the U.S. Senate, all of which have been rated as tossups by RealClearPolitics or major news organizations.

This is the first of a series of posts that we’ll do in the final days of the 2012 campaign, looking at how these races are playing out. Each entry includes excerpts from – and links to – stories about these races by local and national news organizations, as well as a link to the AARP Voters’ Guide for that contest.

Arizona: Republican Rep. Jeff Flake and Democrat Richard Carmona, a physician and former U.S. Surgeon General in the Bush administration, are vying to succeed Republican incumbent John Kyl, who’s retiring.

From The Associated Press, Oct. 10: Flake and Carmona agreed that Medicare needs to be overhauled, but differed on how to go about it. Flake supported a GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan that would change how future Medicare beneficiaries now under age 55 would get health care coverage. Ryan’s plan would provide future seniors with subsidies to help buy a private health plan or buy coverage through a government-run program modeled after the current system. Carmona said he opposes Ryan’s plan because it transfers financial risks from the government to seniors and that seniors with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure will have difficulty getting coverage. Carmona proposed reducing health care costs for the elderly by focusing more on preventing diseases and by getting rid of more waste and fraud.

From the Payson (Ariz.) Roundup, Oct. 17: The debate about the future of Medicare has exploded in the middle of the fierce, dead-heat contest…. Flake has criticized Carmona for supporting President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which includes new benefits for Medicare recipients, but also features $716 billion in reductions in the high-cost Medicare Advantage plans over 10 years. The plans cover 25 percent of the 49 million Medicare recipients. Carmona, meanwhile, has criticized Flake for supporting a Republican budget plan to turn Medicare into a “premium support plan” that gives people less than 55 years old a “voucher” to buy private insurance. Several recent polls have shown Flake’s once sizeable lead in the polls when matched against the relatively unknown Carmona has melted away, leaving the race essentially tied.

Connecticut: Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy is competing with Republican Linda McMahon to fill the seat being vacated by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who’s retiring. Murphy opposes any changes in Medicare and instead would look for cost savings by reducing waste and fraud. In an August newspaper interview, McMahon said she would not rule out supporting GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s original budget plan, and its Medicare proposals, but in an early October debate said: “I have never said I am for privatizing Social Security or Medicare. I will support continuing reform.”

From The Associated Press, Oct. 19: Asked Thursday during her fourth and final debate with Murphy what she would do to shore up the two benefits, McMahon said “there are several things to think about” but that she has purposely “not offered specifics when I’m on the campaign trail because I’d get demagogued.” . . . Murphy pounced on McMahon’s “demagoguing” comment, accusing the former wrestling executive of admitting she doesn’t want to risk votes by offering up specific ideas to the voters. “You have an obligation as a candidate to tell people where you stand, even if that wins you some votes and loses you other votes,” he told reporters after the debate.

Florida: Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, the incumbent, is facing a challenge from Republican Rep. Connie Mack IV.

From the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Oct. 17: One of the key clashes [in the only debate of their U.S. Senate campaign] came over Medicare, a critical program in Florida as a result of its large senior population. Mack accused Nelson of casting the ‘deciding vote’ for the Affordable Care Act - which critics call Obamacare - while characterizing it as more than a $700 billion cut in Medicare spending. [Nelson] said the $700 billion - which would come from hospitals and insurance companies - represents “savings that extended the life of Medicare for eight years.” Without it, Nelson said, Medicare could face a funding crisis in the next three years.

Nelson accused Mack of supporting legislation that would change Medicare into a “voucher” program in which “senior citizens would have to negotiate with insurance companies” for their medical coverage. He also said Mack had supported another measure that would “partially privatize” Social Security.

Indiana: Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly and Republican Richard Mourdock, the state’s treasurer, are competing for the seat of outgoing Sen. Richard Lugar, whom Mourdock defeated in the GOP primary. In a YouTube video from a Tea Party event, Mourdock suggested that Medicare is unconstitutional. That led Donnelly, who opposes changing the program, to respond that “I can’t think of anything more unsettling or more disturbing to seniors.”

From the Evansville Courier & Press, Oct. 16: [Donnelly and Mourdock] grappled over the treasurer’s April 2011 speech to a Madison, Ind., tea party group in which he said programs such as Medicare and Social Security are not included in the U.S. Constitution. Mourdock insisted he wasn’t suggesting those programs should therefore be eliminated. After all, he said, neither the space program nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation are in the Constitution, either, but he supports them.

From WRTV, Oct. 16: Mourdock and Donnelly also clashed over Social Security and Medicare, with Mourdock denying he had ever said those programs are unconstitutional. “I know Mr. Donnelly’s tried to make the point, tried to attack me because I was once asked if in fact the Constitution included the words Social Security and Medicare, and clearly it does not,” Mourdock said. “And I gave that answer, and he runs that in a news clip or a commercial rather to make it sound like I believe the idea of Social Security is unconstitutional. And, Joe, you know I’ve never said that.”

“When you meet with the Madison Tea Party and you say to them, ‘You show me where in the Constitution it allows Medicare, and you show me where in the Constitution it allows Social Security,’ we’re not that dumb. We know what you were implying,” Donnelly rebutted.

See also: Indiana – Medicare, Social Security Loom Large

Massachusetts: Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who won a special election in 2010 to fill the seat of the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, faces a challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a law professor and consumer activist.

From The Associated Press, Oct. 18: The future of Medicare is taking center stage in Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate race, with both candidates saying the other would jeopardize benefits to seniors and put the solvency of the health insurance program at risk. Brown has criticized Warren in recent days, saying she supports “gutting Medicare by three quarters of a trillion dollars” by backing the federal health care law signed by President Obama. Warren says the $716 billion in cuts, spread out over the next decade, are targeted at waste, fraud and subsidies to insurance companies and won’t harm benefits to Medicare recipients. Warren says the changes are intended to protect Medicare and make it more fiscally sound. For both candidates, the fight is central to their efforts to court coveted senior voters.

See also: Massachusetts – Where the Senate Candidates Stand on the Issues

Missouri: Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, the incumbent, faces a challenge from Republican Rep. Todd Akin.

From the Columbia Tribune, Sept. 20: McCaskill, who is seeking a second term, said she opposes Republican ideas that would transform Medicare for younger workers and remake Social Security into a system of private retirement accounts. Akin has supported both of those ideas and, on the campaign trail, said he doesn’t believe Medicare is a constitutional use of federal power. Akin, for example, voted for a plan proposed by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to give vouchers for insurance premiums, instead of direct benefits, to workers now 55 or younger when they retire.

From The Associated Press, Oct. 21: Medicare continues to be a point of contention between McCaskill and Akin. During a debate Thursday night, McCaskill criticized Akin for supporting proposals that she said amounted to “privatizing Medicare” by giving future retirees a fixed amount of money with which to purchase private medical insurance. Akin said seniors deserve a choice and the government should get out of the price-setting business in health care.

Akin, meanwhile, criticized McCaskill for supporting a provision in President Barack Obama’s health care law that cuts more than $700 billion in Medicare payments to hospitals, other medical providers and insurers. McCaskill said those savings were used to strengthen Medicare and that Akin had supported similar cuts in a Republican budget plan.

Montana: Democratic Sen. John Tester, the incumbent, faces a challenge from Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg. Tester opposes any changes in Medicare, saying that “that safety net has worked well for many years.” In a recent debate, Rehberg noted that he had broken with the GOP and voted against Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to overhaul Medicare.

From the Missoulian, Oct. 21: In their final and feistiest debate, Tester and Rehberg traded numerous barbs Saturday night over the federal health care overhaul – and just about everything else. The sparks flew early and often as the two men debated the Affordable Care Act, with Rehberg saying the first legislation he would carry if elected to the Senate would be to “repeal Obamacare.” … Rehberg called the bill a government takeover of health care that is costing businesses money and will get between citizens and their physicians. “You’re just replacing a big, uncaring insurance company with a big, uncaring government,” he said. “Don’t destroy Medicare just to set up an entirely new entitlement for Obamacare.”

Tester, who voted for the 2010 health care law, said Rehberg apparently hasn’t read the bill, because it relies largely on private health insurance to expand coverage. “This is not government health care,” Tester said. “I know that’s a great talking point. But this is not government health care. This is about getting more competition in the marketplace, and holding insurance companies accountable.” … He also said the claim that the law hurts Medicare is false, and that the money removed from Medicare does not affect benefits and went mostly to private insurance companies.

Nevada:  Republican Sen. Dean Heller, a former House member who was appointed to replace Sen. John Ensign after the latter’s resignation, is facing Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.

From The Hill, Sept. 28: Berkley accused Heller of criticizing her for voting to cut Medicare by supporting President Obama’s health care law when Heller had supported cutting Medicare with his vote in favor of Ryan’s budget. Both the Ryan budget and the Obama health law would reduce future Medicare spending by about $700 billion. Berkley told Heller it “takes a lot of brass” to attack her on the $700 billion in cuts when he’d also voted for them. “I did not cut money out of Medicare guaranteed benefits,” she said, arguing that vote extended Medicare’s solvency by nearly a decade and its spending decreases mostly came from cutting reimbursement rates to insurance companies, not to direct care for patients.

Las Vegas Review-Journal, Oct. 16: “The two candidates also clashed on Medicare, with Berkley reminding viewers that Heller twice voted for a GOP plan that would offer voucherlike reimbursements to buy private insurance to future retirees 54 and younger. Heller said he twice voted for Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan so that lawmakers would “have a real discussion” about reforming Medicare…. “I’m not saying Paul Ryan’s plan is the best plan, but it’s a good start,” he said. Berkley said that if the Ryan plan had passed, “it would have ended Medicare by turning it over to private insurance companies, and it would have raised costs to senior by $6,400 a year.”

North Dakota: Republican Rep. Rick Berg is up against former state Attorney Gen. Heidi Heitkamp to succeed Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, who’s retiring. In Congress, Berg supported Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare to a premium support system, which he discussed with North Dakota residents at this April town hall meeting. In a TV ad, Heitkamp, who opposes changes to the program, has promised that “I’ll work to strengthen Medicare, not destroy it.”

From The Week, Oct. 5: The race has been full of policy differences … Heitkamp says Berg wants to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare, and Berg has been hammering Heitkamp for supporting Obamacare and President Obama. Outside groups have poured about $5.6 million into the race.

Ohio: Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, the incumbent, faces a challenge from Republican Josh Mandel, the state’s treasurer.

From the Youngstown Vindicator, Oct. 19: Mandel reiterated his opposition [to the 2010 Affordable Care Act], saying he would push to eliminate junk lawsuits against health care providers, restore funding for Medicare and enable people to purchase health insurance across state lines, all of which would help bring costs down for consumers. “We don’t want government-run health care,” Mandel said. Brown reiterated his support for the health care act, saying he was proud that he voted for it.

See also: Senate Candidates See Tough Choices

Virginia: Two former governors, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, are squaring off over the Senate seat that Allen lost narrowly in 2006 to Democratic Sen. James Webb, who decided to retire after one term. In an Oct. 8 debate, Kaine said he would oppose converting Medicare into a premium support system, while Allen said that he would raise the eligiblity age for Medicare and reduce benefits for wealthier beneficiaries.

From the Frederickburg Free Lance-Star, Oct. 19: The two differed on safety-net programs, with Allen advocating a repeal of the Affordable Care Act - which he said is “adding trillions of dollars in spending and trillions of dollars in taxes” – and Kaine accusing Allen of wanting to privatize Social Security. Allen said Social Security and Medicare need to remain solvent, and that while he “would never force someone out of Social Security,” he supports “new additional options for people to provide for themselves in their retirement years” as well as gradual increases in eligibility ages for those under 50.

Kaine said allowing people to divert their Social Security contributions into individual accounts deprives the program of money needed to pay benefits now. “I will battle against the privatization of Social Security, tooth and nail,” Kaine said.

Wisconsin: Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin is vying with former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who served in the George W. Bush administration as Secretary of Health and Human Services, for the seat of Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, who’s retiring. In late September, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a video of a speech to a Tea Party group in which Thompson said, “Who better than me … [to] come up with programs to do away with Medicaid and Medicare?”

From the Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 7: The contrast between how the two candidates would approach Medicare has become a central theme in the volatile race to replace Kohl….  Thompson has tried to clarify his remarks to reassure voters that he plans to save Medicare, not kill it. But the man who once ran Medicare appears unable to send a clear message about how precisely he would do that.

Baldwin said she believes Medicare, which is funded through a payroll tax on all workers, is a “promise that we must keep.” Her approach, Baldwin said, is “leave it [Medicare] alone and make the appropriate changes to keep its solvency for years and generations to come.”

The congresswoman has said she favors the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which experts say lengthens the solvency of the troubled Medicare hospitalization fund, so-called Medicare Part A, from 2016 until 2024, in part by reducing reimbursements to insurance companies and hospitals by $716 billion and requiring wealthier wage earners to pay more for Medicare.