Democrat Janice Hahn’s campaign for the House of Representatives against Republican Craig Huey, which takes place July 12, has mostly been waged on the territory of social issues. Hahn has delivered a selection of TV ads and mailers citing Huey’s opposition to abortion and his naming of Planned Parenthood as a “murder mill.” And an outside ad from a pro-Huey group replete with racist and sexist imagery has stirred outrage.

But Hahn is also following the well-worn path that allowed Democrats to pick up a seat in upstate New York in a House special election earlier this year. In two mailers late last week, Hahn pinned the Paul Ryan budget plan, and the proposal to end Medicare, on her opponent. She also made use of Newt Gingrich’s comments on Meet the Press about the proposal, which he called “too extreme.” Gingrich warned subsequently, in a bid to desperately save his flailing Presidential campaign, that “any ad which quotes what I said… is a falsehood,” but Democrats have obviously shrugged off that warning.

The first mailer plays off of the Harold Camping billboard campaign touting the imminent Rapture, with a fake billboard reading “The End of MEDICARE is Near… Craig Huey Guarantees It.” It calls July 12, the date of the special election, as “Judgment Day.” The back of the mailer lists basic facts about the Ryan budget and the Medicare phase-out plan, deleting Ryan’s association and calling it “Craig Huey’s plan.” Huey publicly endorsed the Ryan budget during candidate forums in the -primary.

The ad then concludes by saying that “even Newt Gingrich calls Huey’s plan too extreme.” The second mailer has a Jeopardy theme, asking voters which Republican said that the plan to end Medicare was too extreme. Again, Gingrich’s remarks play a starring role, as the inside of the ad reveals Gingrich as the speaker of that remark, not Huey.

The mailers arrived at my house; I am a voter in the CA-36 district. In addition, Hahn’s statement in the campaign booklet for the special election references the Medicare phase-out plan, wherein she says she will never vote for a privatization scheme.

Democrats have pummeled Republicans over the Ryan budget, which would turn Medicare into a voucher program by ending the single-payer government plan and providing seniors with a coupon to buy private health insurance, a coupon that reduces in value relative to the cost of insurance over time. Ryan recently backtracked on his plan by allowing for a provision that would preserve the single-payer option for seniors, giving them a choice. But Democrats charge that almost all House and Senate Republicans have already voted for the original plan, and that this will be a focus of the 2012 elections. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told The Hill, “The only plan Americans want is called Medicare and we must strengthen it, not weaken it. What you’re hearing now is a lead balloon crashing to the ground.”

In addition, Democrats show by this ad in the Hahn-Huey race that they will not be bullied into giving up on the opening Gingrich provided when he criticized the Ryan plan. Another prominent Democrat, Al Franken, referenced the Gingrich comments in his speech Saturday to Netroots Nation:

Newt Gingrich went on “Meet the Press” last month and said that the Ryan plan that would end Medicare was “right-wing social engineering,” that it was “too big a jump.”  He has spent the month since apologizing—but for once in his life, Newt was right.
Actually, that’s not fair.  He was calling for electronic medical records years before the rest of the country got on board with the idea.  So he was right the one other time.  Gotta give a guy credit.

Interestingly, Ryan’s new idea to preserve fee-for-service Medicare as an option alongside privatization mirrors Gingrich’s preference, as well as the plans of other 2012 GOP candidates like Tim Pawlenty.

It remains to be seen whether the attacks on the Republican plan to end Medicare will be a factor in the CA-36. The district is fairly heavily Democratic, and Hahn was already benefiting from the firestorm over the racist and sexist ad from a Huey-supporting group. There has been no public polling in the race, but internal polling from both campaigns reportedly showed a very close race prior to the notorious ad release (Hahn’s internals only had her up 5 points; Huey’s had him even). The district is somewhat apathetic politically, and voter fatigue could be a factor; for many district residents, this is the fourth election just in 2011, including a state Senate special election, LA citywide elections, and the CA-36 primary.

But Democrats here are using the Kathy Hochul model to paint the Republican as outside the mainstream. Whether this line of attack will continue to be effective is a question of whether Medicare is preserved in the debt limit/budget deficit talks. If Medicare does get cut, even if not in the same way as the Ryan proposal, the ability to draw contrast on the issue could be snuffed out.

David Dayen

David Dayen