Emilia Sykes, a Democrat seeking an open US House seat in northeastern Ohio, had a simple message for the 20 or so union members who sat before her: Republican lawmakers could force you to keep working into your 70s.
Sykes, a state representative, had already won the endorsement of their Tri-County Building and Construction Trades Council to represent a newly drawn swing district in the Akron-Canton area. This was a get-out-the-vote meeting at the union offices in Akron three weeks before Election Day, and she wanted help raising concerns about her opponent, Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert.
“She does not care about the middle class,” Sykes told the group. “She does not care about your pensions. She doesn’t want to protect Social Security benefits that people have earned.”
It’s an increasingly loud warning from Democrats on the campaign trail following Republican proposals to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare or subject those programs to frequent reauthorization debates. Some consultants and pollsters say the party should have pushed that message sooner, and ought to amplify it more in the closing days.
“It’s a huge issue,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said in a phone interview. “I think we’ve underplayed it to date for such an old electorate.”
Democrats running for Congress and outside groups supporting them spent $50.4 million on negative and contrast TV ads about Social Security or Medicare from Sept. 14, after primary elections ended, through Oct. 26, according to media tracking firm AdImpact.
“The ads and attacks have written themselves,” Will Ragland, research director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said in a phone interview.
Sykes is among them, with a recent ad telling voters her opponent supports “raising middle-class taxes and cutting Social Security and Medicare.”
In February, Gesiotto Gilbert called for “entitlement reform and a Balanced Budget Amendment” in a post on Twitter. She also wrote in a 2015 Washington Times column that she supports “lowering the national debt through spending cuts and entitlement reforms.”
Gesiotto Gilbert hasn’t directly countered Sykes’ ad, and her campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. Other Republicans say Democrats are grasping for straws as they struggle to respond to voters’ concerns about inflation and the economy.
“It is understandable that Democrats will use whatever is available to get people to fear the election of Republicans,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the GOP-aligned American Action Forum, said in a phone interview. “I think this is playing the fear card.”
Republicans seeking the House Budget Committee gavel in the next Congress have said changes to Social Security and Medicare—such as an increase in the eligibility age—should be a high priority.
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) in a late September phone interview described the program’s solvency as “the light that’s coming at us— not the light at the end of the tunnel, but the train that’s going to run us over if we don’t do something.”
Arrington, who’s in a safe GOP district, said he understands any reluctance to broach the subject while campaigning. “Both sides can take this and try to scare people with it, and then we get into where we’re all backed up against the wall and in our corners,” Arrington said.
In a June primary debate, Arizona’s Republican Senate nominee, Blake Masters, floated the idea of privatizing Social Security. A few weeks later, he walked that back, saying the program’s long-term solvency needed to be studied.
The leadership-aligned Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee both ran TV ads prominently featuring Masters’s comments, and when he faced Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in an October debate, Kelly made that part of his opening statement.
Masters didn’t directly acknowledge Kelly’s attack during the debate, instead commenting on inflation, saying Democrats were responsible for the high prices hurting seniors.
Democrats also have run attack ads on Social Security or Medicare against Republicans in Colorado, New Hampshire, Washington state, and Wisconsin. In Nevada and Iowa, their ads have targeted Republicans’ opposition to the law to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have run six TV ads backed by $8.6 million in spending, criticizing Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz for praising Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who has proposed requiring all laws to be reauthorized every five years.
“Mehmet Oz, the man with nine houses, just doesn’t care,” said an ad by the leadership-aligned Senate Majority PAC.
In his debate with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Oz said he doesn’t want to end popular entitlement programs. He and the National Republican Senatorial Committee ran an ad saying Fetterman “takes everything too far” and that Oz supports “protecting Medicare and Social Security.”
New Hampshire US Senate nominee Don Bolduc stands out among Republican candidates for having discussed some details. In an August town hall, he advocated privatizing Medicare, according to a recording obtained by obtained by Politico.
In an October debate with the Democrat he hopes to unseat, Sen. Maggie Hassan, Bolduc advocated for lifting the taxable income cap to raise more money for Social Security.
In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said in an August radio interview that all programs, including Social Security and Medicare, should be discretionary — subject to debate each year by Congress — rather than continue to be guaranteed mandatory. After Democrats criticized those comments, Johnson said in a September Fox News interview that he wants to “save Social Security.”
In northeastern Pennsylvania, congressional challenger Jim Bognet, a former Trump administration appointee, found himself on the defensive over his 2008 comment while working for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney that “the big enchilada, so to speak, is reforming entitlements.”
Bognet used an October debate against the incumbent Democrat, Matt Cartwright, to go on the record opposing any benefit cuts and any plan to raise the retirement age.
In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet aired an ad repeating Republican nominee Joe O’Dea’s response when asked in June about Social Security and Medicare. Back then, O’Dea said he’d support “a reduction in some of those programs.” Flash forward to this month, when the Bennet and O’Dea debated. O’Dea said he “will not touch Social Security or Medicare.”
In Ohio, Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance has also distanced himself from GOP proposals to overhaul entitlements, insulating himself from attacks.
His Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, has criticized Vance for a 2010 blog post that described Social Security and Medicare among the largest drivers of the deficit. But Vance has since downplayed the need for changes to the programs.
“People overstate the problem with the Social Security trust fund in particular,” Vance told reporters this month in Ohio. “I think so long as we don’t do really ridiculous things on spending, Social Security should be stable. It should be something we’re able to take care of in the long term.”
A potential threat against entitlements resonates with women over 50, a key group of undecided voters, Lake said. That’s also why it makes for an effective response by Democrats when Republicans accuse them of supporting the “defund the police” movement, another message focused on older women.
“They say, ‘You want to defund police.’ We say, ‘You’re lying—here’s what I said: I’ve never been for it—and you’re trying to cover up that you want to cut Medicare and Social Security,’ ” Lake said.
It’s a critical message for Sykes in Ohio, where more than a quarter of the population will be 60 or older by 2025, according to the Scripps Gerontology Center.
“We have an aging population, and people are going to be relying upon Social Security to keep them out of poverty,” she said in an interview.
David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said he was “perplexed” that more Democrats nationwide have not seized on the issue.
“I think it would be effective in this midterm election,” Cohen said in a phone interview. “But they’re just not talking about it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org