By Alex Isenstadt
House Republicans say they'd never push grandma over the proverbial Medicare cliff. If you don't believe it, just ask their parents, who are starring in a string of early ads by vulnerable lawmakers.
Taking a cue from Paul Ryan — the author of the Medicare makeover plan Democrats are trying to bury them with — vulnerable GOP lawmakers are invoking mom and dad as character witnesses in a string of early campaign ads. Ryan brought his mom along to several campaign events after he was picked as Mitt Romney's No. 2 last month.
Who better, the vulnerable House members say, to counter potentially lethal Democratic attacks that they want to end a program that's near and dear to seniors.
There's Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell, who's out with a TV ad showing him standing on a porch with his mother and father. "Folks like my parents unselfishly built this nation, and we owe them security in return," the congressman says in the commercial. "That's why I'm fighting to improve Medicare … every day in Congress."
Indiana Rep. Larry Bucshon's mother-in-law dominates his latest spot: The congressman doesn't even appear until the very end.
"No matter what liberal politicians might say, you can trust Larry to protect Medicare," she says. "I should know: I trusted him with my daughter."
Nevada Rep. Joe Heck recalls in a new ad that his father suffered a heart attack two years ago. "That's when I knew how important Medicare was to me," Heck tells viewers. "Medicare and a team of great doctors saved my father's life."
The idea behind the ads, Republicans strategists say, is to put a human face on the Medicare issue and assuage skeptical voters who might think the GOP wants to do away with entitlement programs. To Democrats, the fact that their opponents are bringing their parents into the debate is a sure sign Republicans are in damage-control mode.
The TV ads show how both parties are trying to message around the entitlement issue ahead of the election. Democrats argue that the Republican plan would destroy the Medicare system as it now exists; Republicans are trying to convince voters that they want to reform the health care program in order to save it. Romney's selection of Ryan only raised the stakes of the debate, which was already expected to play an outsize role in House campaigns this fall.
Republicans say to expect plenty more parents showing up in TV commercials between now and Nov. 6, calling it a powerful tool for neutralizing what's emerged as the central Democratic attack line of the campaign. The three lawmakers who used their parents in ads so far are in some of the nation's most competitive races and have come under fierce attack in the weeks since Ryan was selected.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has released TV ads accusing Bucshon and Heck of wanting to cut taxes for millionaires as they would eliminate Medicare benefits for seniors. Rigell's opponent, Paul Hirschbiel, meanwhile, released a statement saying that the "Rigell/Ryan budget turns Medicare into a voucher program raising the average cost to seniors by more than $6,000 a year."
"I think you will see more of this out there, and it's effective," said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "For Republicans, it's important that we stand up and be on offense."
"We do care about Medicare," Walden added. "Democrats would have you believe that's not the case."
Republicans privately acknowledge they aren't likely to win the messaging battle on entitlement programs outright — Democrats have used it for years to win support from seniors. Instead, the GOP goal is to close the Democratic advantage.
Many of the Republican strategists involved in making the parent-focused ads say they knew all along that they would need to find a way to address the Medicare issue — it had been a Democratic attack in several special elections this year and last — but said that Ryan's newfound prominence in the election made the task at hand more urgent.
"The days of us allowing them to bully us and cast us as demons — when it's actually them that want to put these programs on a path to bankruptcy — are over," said Brad Todd, a veteran Republican consultant who produced Rigell's commercial. "There isn't a single Republican out there who doesn't want to save Medicare."
The mom and dad strategy follows a playbook Republicans have used before — with mixed success. During a Sept. 2011 special House election in Nevada, Republican candidate Mark Amodei ran a slate of ads featuring his mother that disputed Democratic claims he wanted to take an ax to Medicare. Amodei went on to win the race, which was held in a conservative part of the state, decisively.
But Republicans came up short in a June special House election in Arizona, where GOP candidate Jesse Kelly aired commercials in which his grandfather, Hank, insisted that the contender wants to safeguard Medicare. The ads were designed to combat relentless attacks from Democrats, who promoted footage of Kelly calling the program a "Ponzi scheme."
Democrats argue that the new commercials are proof that Republicans are worried about Medicare's role in the election and feel the need to go on defense. They point to two recent polls, one from The Washington Post and ABC News and the other from the Pew Research Center, showing widespread opposition to the Ryan budget plan. Such opposition, they argue, is bound to filter to down-ballot congressional races this fall.
"The only people Republicans can find to defend them for supporting Ryan's plan to end Medicare to pay for more tax cuts for millionaires are people related to them," said Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman. "If it's gotten bad enough for House Republicans that they have to prove that seniors in their own family still stand by them, they've probably lost the chance to prove they stand by America's seniors."
In the weeks since Ryan was named Romney's No. 2, Republican strategists have poured over the Amodei race in hopes of learning lessons that can be used in races across the map. In August, Mike Shields, the NRCC's political director, produced a Web video for the Republican candidate in which he held up the Nevada campaign as a blueprint for weathering the anticipated Medicare assault.
Republicans said the race showed it's possible to neutralize the Medicare issue.
"You want Medicare-aged third parties to validate a candidate, and if they are available to do that, it adds credibility," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who crafted Amodei's ads. "It totally makes the Democratic attacks sound absurd. What reasonable person wants to take Medicare away from their mother?"
It's not just incumbent lawmakers who are putting their families front and center. North Carolina congressional candidate David Rouzer adopts a similar approach in his newest commercial, in which he leaves most of the talking to his grandmother. "You're going to hear a lot of things in this election. But you deserve to know the truth about David Rouzer: David will protect Social Security and Medicare," she says. "I know because David's my grandson."
Rouzer, too, has come under assault from Democrats: A recent DCCC ad claimed he supported a budget that would "essentially end Medicare."
Heck said that he spotlighted his father to cut through the clutter of political ads on the state's airwaves. Running in a Southern Nevada district where the 55-and-older set makes up nearly 20 percent of the population, the congressman said he recognized the importance of putting forward an entitlement-themed message in the face of Democratic attacks.
"The idea that Republicans don't care about Medicare really falls flat on its face," he said in an interview. "This is about how to get across our message about what is best for Medicare."
Alex Isenstadt is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.