LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Shaky claims about Medicare were common in the 2012 campaign, from President Barack Obama on down. Now they've surfaced in this year's midterm elections, in one of the hottest Senate races in the country.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell's Democratic opponent, released her first attack ad Tuesday, accusing McConnell of voting to raise a retired coal miner's Medicare costs by $6,000.
If coal is king in the Kentucky race, Medicare is a potentially powerful issue, too, and Grimes touches both bases in the 30-second statewide TV ad, staged in front of a fire truck for good measure.
In it, Grimes sits with a man identified as retired coal miner Don Disney of Cloverlick, Kentucky, who looks straight into the camera and poses this question as if speaking to McConnell: "I want to know how you could've voted to raise my Medicare costs by $6,000. How are my wife and I supposed to afford that?" Then Disney and Grimes pretend to wait for an answer.
McConnell cast no such vote.
The bill he supported in 2011, on which the ad's claim is based, proposed moving ahead on a plan in the House by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to privatize Medicare over time. Some analysts said that could eventually raise costs for beneficiaries. But elderly people such as Disney — already retired or approaching retirement — would see no changes. "Current Medicare benefits are preserved for those in and near retirement," stated the bill, which failed in the Senate.
Moreover, Ryan's plan at the time would have kept traditional Medicare as an option for people aging into the system over the next decade. Had the bill become law, Disney and beneficiaries like him could have stay parked in the usual plan, not forced into private plans as future retirees might have been.
Overblown rhetoric on Ryan's plan became a cottage industry for Democrats in 2012 when he was GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate, despite being repeatedly called on the deception.
Republicans misrepresented Medicare facts, too, with variations of a claim that surfaced again Tuesday in a statement from McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore: "The simple reality is that Sen. McConnell has fought to protect Medicare, while Alison Lundergan Grimes and her political benefactors have raided it by $700 billion to pay for Obamacare."
The reality wasn't that simple, never mind that Grimes, a private attorney who became Kentucky secretary of state in 2012, wasn't in a position to raid any federal program.
It's true that the health care law provided for cuts of more than $700 billion over 10 years in the Medicare program. But the cuts are from payments to Medicare service providers, such as hospitals, not from benefits directly. And some of the savings are going to improved preventive care and other benefits under Medicare, while the bulk is for expanding health care coverage for the general population.
Grimes did not back down when asked about her ad on Tuesday following her speech to a gathering of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
"We'll let Mitch McConnell explain his vote for the Paul Ryan budget, which actually increases Medicare costs and privatizes Social Security," Grimes said.
Jonathan Hurst, Grimes' campaign manager, said the bill would have increased Disney's costs in other ways, including by driving up the cost of traditional Medicare plans and making prescriptions more expensive. But the estimate of $6,000 in extra costs that the ad staked its claim on — from a 2011 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities— applies to people who might have signed up for private coverage under Ryan's plan, not for Disney or retirees like him who are on traditional Medicare.
McConnell declined to comment about the ad as he left the Senate floor on Tuesday. But his campaign called the ad "the oldest, most cynical attack in the Obama playbook."
It is the first in what the campaign says will be a series of ads featuring Kentucky voters asking McConnell questions. Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton declined to say what those future ads will be about.
Woodward reported from Washington. Reporter Charles Babington contributed reporting from Washington.