PHOENIX — Democrats in key races around the country are making an aggressive push for older voters, a key bloc in lower-turnout midterm elections, citing both their own work to lower prescription drug costs and hammering the GOP for suggesting changes to Social Security.
The push, if successful, will be a key part of Democrats’ ongoing electoral comeback, providing an example of both how the party in power’s congressional successes and the GOP’s ideological excesses have altered the political narrative ahead of November.
Here in retiree-rich Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly is campaigning relentlessly on the provisions aimed at lowering prescription drugs in the Inflation Reduction Act while Democratic groups pound his opponent, venture capitalist Blake Masters, with attack ads noting the Republican’s support for the privatization of Social Security — something Masters is now backing away from.
“It’s going to have such a positive impact on seniors’ lives, to finally, after decades, get to the point where Medicare can negotiate the cost of prescription drugs,” Kelly told reporters after a roundtable with the AARP and seniors during Congress’ summer recess. “We finally fixed it. So it’s a big deal.”
In midterm elections, when less dedicated younger voters often skip casting their ballots, seniors are the dominant voting bloc. During the last midterm election in 2018, voters over 50 made up a full three-fifths of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. And in 2014, when turnout plummeted across the country, they made up nearly two-thirds of all voters.
Both times, they leaned toward the GOP, though Democrats’ success in limiting the Republican advantage in 2018 was a key reason the party was able to take back the House instead of suffering one of the worst midterm defeats in their centuries-long history, as they did in 2014.
Surveys now indicate an environment in between those two poles: A Quinnipiac University poll, released Wednesday, found the GOP with a 51% to 43% advantage among those over 65, and with the two parties tied at 47% among voters age 50 to age 64. An AARP survey, released earlier this summer and conducted by a bipartisan duo of pollsters, found roughly three-fifths of the persuadable voters in the country were over the age of 50.
Seniors have long tended to lead toward the more conservative and change-resistant GOP, though Republicans’ advantage has faded somewhat as the comparatively liberal baby boom generation enters their golden years.
“The party has a real opportunity to continue the gains President Joe Biden made with seniors in 2020,” said Nick Ahamed, the deputy executive director of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.
Social Security and prescription drug costs provide two potent issues for the party. The AARP survey found 82% of voters over 50 years old in key congressional districts said Social Security would be an important factor in their vote, and 69% said the same of the cost of prescription drugs.
And nearly 9 in 10 said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported allowing Medicare to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs or a candidate who protects Social Security from cuts.
Republicans, of course, have a potent counter-argument: inflation, which has a particularly nasty bite for retirees on a fixed income.
“Joe Biden and Mark Kelly have caused massive inflation that means every dollar that someone has, whether they saved it or whether it’s coming from a Social Security check, it’s worth less than last month over month as groceries and gas climbs higher and higher,” Masters told reporters.
Kelly is far from alone in his focus on seniors. It’s also been a major issue for Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) as he fights to hold on to his Donald Trump-won rural district. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) held a similar roundtable event with the AARP on prescription drug prices early on in the congressional recess. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee in Wisconsin, has relentlessly hammered GOP Sen. Ron Johnson for suggesting cuts to Social Security.
Democrats have also tried to tar Republicans broadly as supporting attacks on Social Security and Medicare. Biden has repeatedly attacked Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, for a plan to sunset all legislation after five years. Democrats argue the plan would lead to the elimination of both major entitlement programs.
“Your Social Security, every five years, will be eliminated unless it’s voted back into existence,” Biden told the crowd at a rally in Rockville, Maryland, last month. “Do you want to put your Social Security into the hands of Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene?”
Republicans have variously tried to either dodge the issue — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was quick to distance himself from Scott’s plan — or to argue they are protecting the programs’ long-term health by reducing benefits.
After Barnes attacked Johnson for wanting to make Social Security spending discretionary, Johnson’s campaign fired back.
“Leave it to a career politician like Mandela Barnes to bury his head in the sand and ignore a politically difficult problem,” Johnson told a local TV station. “The reality is Social Security will be depleted by 2035 but Barnes has no plan to protect seniors, just empty scare tactics and hollow election-year rhetoric.”
A quick glance at the Senate map shows how decisive older voters could be. Of the eight states at the center of the battle for the chamber, which is split 50-50, five are among the 20 oldest states in the country: New Hampshire is 2nd, Florida is 5th, Pennsylvania is 7th and Ohio and Wisconsin are in the teens. Two other Sunbelt states with competitive races — Nevada and Arizona — are havens for retirees.
Kelly, however, may face the trickiest challenge for Democrats. Arizona’s electorate is sharply polarized by age, and the former astronaut needs to appeal to both a more progressive and diverse population of millennials and members of Generation Z competing with a moderate and conservative base of older, mostly white voters.
At the AARP roundtable, Kelly laid out the pharmaceutical cost provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act — capping the cost of insulin at $35 a month for Medicare patients, letting Medicare use its “massive buying power” to negotiate lower prices for some drugs, creating a $2,000 yearly cap on out-of-pocket expenses — and talked to seniors who had trouble affording their drugs.
One woman, who takes eight different prescriptions daily, described how the monthly cost of her insulin shot up from $44 to $128 overnight. Another woman, whose treatment for multiple sclerosis cost $11,000 a year, said she had stopped taking her drugs entirely for more than 18 months but will start again when the law’s provisions kick in.
“I can’t thank you enough for getting this across the finish line,” Dana Marie Kennedy, the state director for the AARP, told Kelly after recounting the decades-long fight to give Medicare the power to negotiate prices, noting the result will be “millions of seniors will save billions of dollars” on their medications.
A day earlier, Masters had gathered a group of seniors in the living room of a house in a gated community in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. While the point of the discussion was to hear seniors’ “concerns about inflation and the state of the economy,” the conversation actually bounced from topic to topic, with the assembled bringing up a range of conservative grievances.
One attendee, wearing a “45” hat, compared the FBI to the Gestapo. Another woman insisted Arizona’s 2020 election was marred by fraud — something debunked by multiple audits.
But talking to reporters in the home’s driveway after the event, Masters was more on message. He insisted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s ad, which features straightforward footage of him declaring “we should privatize” and “get the government out of” Social Security, was a “lie.”
“I’ve been clear, we’re never gonna cut it. You can’t pull the rug out from seniors,” he said, quickly adding that Social Security has “long-term challenges.” His campaign has since said he simply wants to incentivize future generations to create private saving accounts.
Masters has also relentlessly attacked the Inflation Reduction Act, but when asked if he would support allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices — one of the law’s signature provisions — he said he would have to study the issue more.
The same day Masters was in Gilbert, Kelly visited the main campus of Arizona State University to pitch himself to a much younger audience. Speaking to a crowd of more than 50 students, he related the story of the shooting that nearly claimed the life of his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (This year’s college freshmen were 6 years old when the shooting occurred.)
But when he discussed the Inflation Reduction Act, he focused on its climate change provisions instead of the health care ones — college students are more afraid of the long-term climate future than they are about getting sick.
“It’s going to reduce greenhouse gasses produced by the United States by 40% by the end of the decade,” he said. “It’s going to help us make the case to other countries that they need to do more.”
Student debt forgiveness, in particular, could be a tricky issue for Democrats with seniors. The Quinnipiac poll found 53% of American supported Biden’s plan to forgive $10,000 or more of student loan debt for borrowers who make less than $125,000 a year. But the plan was far less popular with older voters, with just 41% support among those over the age of 65.
At the event, which took place before Biden rolled out the forgiveness plan, Kelly said he would need to know specifics, and quickly pivoted to discussing the need for more trade schools and apprenticeship programs to help people who did not plan on going to college.
But when Biden did roll out his plan, Kelly quickly announced his support.