Oct 26, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats grasp for third rail

Illustration of a shield surrounded by abstract ballot shapes.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In a Hail Mary bid to dent Republican credibility on the economy, Democrats are escalating attacks related to Social Security and Medicare in a final midterm stretch dominated by signs of a growing red wave.

Why it matters: The strategic shift comes after Democrats spent the better part of the summer and early autumn campaigning on a heavily abortion-focused message that polls suggest is now falling flat compared to issues such as inflation.

  • "Democrats have no unified economic message; it just doesn’t exist. There's no agenda," said one Democratic strategist working on House campaigns.
  • "In [the] absence of saying, 'Here’s what we stand for' … your only choice is to attack what the other side has."

Driving the news: In a speech at the Democratic National Committee on Monday, President Biden used the phrase "Social Security and Medicare" 11 times — seizing on reporting that some Republicans want to use the debt ceiling to extract entitlement cuts.

Behind the scenes: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sent House campaigns message-testing from Data for Progress showing that Social Security "is one of the best-testing issues for Democrats," according to emails shared with Axios.

  • Other memos on drug pricing, abortion, and domestic manufacturing contain no such declarations about the salience of those messages. One memo on immigration notes that even the most effective statements "were all below-average messages relative to other topics we’ve tested."
  • "We've been pushing this issue, I think, since July," Data for Progress spokesperson McKenzie Wilson told Axios. She said it's "mildly frustrating" entitlements are only now figuring prominently in Democrats' messaging: "I wish it had been picked up earlier, but I'm glad campaigns are doing it now."
  • The Democratic strategist working on House campaigns told Axios: "I never said the word ‘Social Security’ in a press release, in a statement, before three … [or] four weeks ago."

Zoom in: House Republicans' rollout last month of the "Commitment to America," which includes a vague pledge to "save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare," was an inflection point, according to Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.).

  • Protecting entitlements has been a "key theme" of her campaign, Craig told Axios, but after the rollout she "certainly ramped up this message that we should believe Republicans when they tell us what they're going to do."
  • Rep. Dan Kildee's (D-Mich.) campaign said that they and Democratic groups have collectively run half a dozen entitlements-focused ads in his swing district just in October alone.
  • Democrats have also pointed to Senate GOP campaign chief Rick Scott's (R-Fla.) agenda, which proposes sunsetting all federal legislation after five years, and the Republican Study Committee's budget proposal, which suggests raising the ages of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security.

Between the lines: Democrats' economic messaging has largely been focused on their legislative record — emphasizing their accomplishments, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, rather than offering a clear forward-looking platform.

  • It was only days ago that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi provided a rare glimpse into Democrats' policy agenda if they keep the majority.
  • "Our message is that we're going to build on what we've already done," Kildee told Axios, pushing back on the notion that voters have been left guessing about Democrats’ economic vision.
Mentions by Democrats in Congress
Data: Quorum. Note: Data gathered daily digitally from official press releases, newsletters, floor statements, and social media posts and analyzed weekly. Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

By the numbers: Congressional Democrats' mentions of inflation, drug pricing, and Social Security and Medicare in official communications spiked in August as Congress was voting on the Inflation Reduction Act, according to data from Quorum.

  • The legislation included a provision allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, which was heralded by Democrats as a major victory.
  • After the bill passed, mentions of all three issue areas dropped precipitously. But — unlike the other issues — references to Social Security and Medicare began to spike again in October, suggesting Democrats have rallied behind it as their most potent closing message.

The other side: Some Republicans are quick to rebut any notion they want to cut entitlement benefits.

  • In a statement to Axios, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), one of the most vulnerable House Republicans, hit back at a new ad from Democrat Tony Vargas accusing him of supporting cuts.
  • "This is the fourth election they've tried this on me and voters don't believe them," Bacon said. "They're throwing everything they can [to] see what sticks. They're floundering. I've always been dedicated to saving Social Security and Medicare."
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