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House Democrats Elated by Paul Ryan Pick. Should They Be?

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said the party couldn't be more pleased with the contrast created by Rep. Paul Ryan's elevation to vice presidential nominee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said the party couldn't be more pleased with the contrast created by Rep. Paul Ryan's elevation to vice presidential nominee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If voters aren’t familiar yet with the “the Ryan budget,” they will be soon — and House Democrats couldn’t be happier about it.

Democrats already banked on using House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) proposed Medicare cuts as their primary attack point against the House GOP this fall, when the party faces tough odds in winning back the majority.

This morning, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney promoted the budget’s author to the national ticket — effectively making the plan a household name. An elated Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee encouraged its candidates to start shooting out press releases overnight.

“I just nominated Mitt Romney to be one of the DCCC’s newest Majority Makers,” DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said today in a phone interview. “He may have handed the majority to us with his choice of Paul Ryan. The Ryan budget is a debate we know we win — and Mitt Romney just nationalized the debate.”

In his budget, Ryan proposed transitioning Medicare into a voucher-like system by 2022. Democrats used the controversial policy as part of their messaging to woo voters, particularly seniors — an otherwise reliable constituency that they lost by a wide margin in the 2010 elections.

So is this the lucky break House Democrats pined for? Maybe. Will it help them pick up many more House seats this fall? That’s even less clear.

Not surprisingly, the attack could be most potent in places with aging populations: Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Israel argued Ryan’s national candidacy would help his candidates across the board but acknowledged it might resonate more in these places.

“My sense is that House Republicans in Florida woke up, heard the news and got a lump in their throats,” Israel said. “They have to defend the indefensible. It also helps in Arizona, where we have three races in play. It helps in Nevada and elsewhere across the country.”

There are competitive House races in many of these states. For example, House Democrats are attempting to hold the competitive 12th district in southwestern Pennsylvania. Beaver County, one of the population centers of that district, has the most Medicare Part D enrollments per capita in the country.

Like many of his colleagues, Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) didn’t waste time tying his opponent, attorney Keith Rothfus, to the budget. “Congressman Paul Ryan is the architect of a budget that would have disastrous consequences for Pennsylvania’s seniors [and that] is strongly supported by Keith Rothfus,” Critz said.

Democrats point to internal polling that shows this attack message continues to resonate. Since House Republicans voted for Ryan’s Budget in 2011, Democrats used the proposed cuts in television advertisements, automated calls and on the stump.

The DCCC’s message showed results, too, especially in special elections. Democrats credit the issue for delivering victories for Rep. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.) in May 2011 and Rep. Ron Barber (Ariz.) in June.

But special elections are just that — special. These contests exist in a political vacuum, with parties pouring in millions of dollars to win the low-turnout affairs. The results are not often indicative of a national trend.

So far, Republicans are standing by Ryan in their public statements about his selection to the ticket. They say voters won’t fall for the DCCC’s “Mediscare” tactics.

“Our historic victories in 2010 were a rebuke of the Democrats’ failures to put the economy back on track,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said in a statement. “There is no better surrogate to again help us lead this debate than our House colleague and friend, Chairman Paul Ryan.”

But there’s some evidence that Republicans know this won’t play well everywhere. Not a single Democrat voted for Ryan’s budget, but Rep. Denny Rehberg (Mont.) was one of a couple of  handfuls of Republicans who voted against it. Rehberg is running in a very competitive race for Senate, and this summer local Republicans aired an advertisement boasting about Rehberg’s “no” vote.

“Congressman Ryan is a public servant of the highest order, and I appreciate his character, intelligence, and creativity, not only on the vast majority of issues on which we agree — like controlling government spending, developing our natural resources, and providing tax relief for families and job creators — but also on the few occasions where we haven’t,” Rehberg said in a statement about the Ryan selection.

Still, for the most part, Republicans remain confident. Brad Todd, a Republican consultant with extensive experience in Wisconsin politics, said Ryan remains one of the most popular surrogates on the campaign trial in Congressional races.

“He’s probably one of the biggest draws we have after the Speaker,” Todd said. “Every one of my clients has asked me, ‘How can I get Paul Ryan to come in and campaign for me?'”

Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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