WASHINGTON — Legendary crooner Pat Boone, the national spokesman for the 60 Plus Association, a self-described conservative seniors group, announced in early May that GOP congressional candidate Jane Corwin had won the group's Honorary Guardian of Seniors' Rights award. She could be counted on, he said, "to protect Social Security and Medicare while also working to reduce the federal budget deficit."
Corwin was running for an open House of Representatives seat in a western New York state district that historically votes Republican. But if 60 Plus' goal was to inoculate Corwin from attacks on the Medicare issue, the effort failed. Corwin was beaten Tuesday by Democratic opponent Kathy Hochul, largely because of voter fears about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's proposal to sharply transform Medicare, which House Republicans support.
That raises questions about whether 60 Plus, a 19-year-old organization that over the last year has become increasingly active in pushing Republican candidates and causes, will be effective in next year's elections. The Alexandria, Va.- based group — which says it's a nonpartisan advocate for "free enterprise, less government, less taxes" and an alternative to the AARP — backs the Ryan plan. The proposal is a first step "to save Medicare for future retirees because clearly the status quo is leading Medicare down the road to ruin, not the path to prosperity," Jim Martin, the group's chairman, said in an email.
He said 60 Plus didn't fail in the Corwin's case. "Our efforts worked, but it was too little too late," he wrote. "The candidate herself admitted that the charge that she was wrecking Medicare went unanswered too long."
For years, 60 Plus played a low-key role in elections, but that changed last year, when the group spent $7 million on ads to help Republicans in tossup races, according to Federal Election Commission records. The ads denounced Democrats for backing $500 billion in Medicare cuts over 10 years in the new health care law, and portrayed Republicans as the protectors of seniors. Almost all the Republican candidates won. The group reportedly spent another $800,000 in April in a series of "thank you" broadcast ads for 39 Republicans who voted for the Ryan proposal.
But the controversy surrounding the Ryan plan could complicate 60 Plus' efforts to promote GOP candidates. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said the group could have a harder time selling a positive message about the Wisconsin Republican congressman than it did attacking the health law. "It's always easier to tear something down than to build something up," she said. "Now the tables are turned. We get to say, 'Don't be fooled. This is what it really does.' "
For next year's elections, Republicans hope to expand their gains with seniors. Last year, people older than 60 voted Republican by the largest margin since the early 1980s, according to Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University. Exit polls showed that seniors favored Republicans by 21 percentage points, Lake said.
The fight leading up to 2012 will focus intensively on the Ryan plan, which would raise the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 and convert it from a traditional government-paid fee-for-service system to one in which seniors get subsidies to buy private health insurance.
The changes wouldn't apply to those now 55 and older, but all others would pay more once they become eligible, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Ryan also would retain the $500 billion in Medicare savings that were included in the health law, a point that Democrats say makes Republicans hypocritical for criticizing the cuts earlier. Since the House passed Ryan's budget, the GOP's lead with gray America has narrowed to 10 percentage points.
"60 Plus will be a pretty big player in helping to defend Republican freshmen," said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist. "Republicans are realizing their vote to end Medicare as we know it will be very problematic for the party, so they will have to figure out how to defend it, and GOP strategists will dispatch 60 Plus to do a lot of their dirty work."
Republicans say that 60 Plus, launched with help from direct-mail veteran Richard Viguerie, is a welcome ally. The group has only two lobbyists, rarely testifies at hearings and isn't a key source of policy advice, congressional staffers say. Still, aides say, 60 Plus is adept at getting attention at town hall meetings, sending letters and making phone calls on issues that are key to seniors.
"They've always been good at turning folks out for press conferences and things like that," said Kyle Downey, a spokesman for the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
The source of 60 Plus' recent largesse is unclear. Martin told Kaiser Health News that his group has 300,000 "voluntary" members, none of whom pays dues. The group has been in the red most years since 2003, according to Internal Revenue Service documents. In mid-2009, 60 Plus reported that its assets were a negative $713,271 on revenue of $1.82 million.
The group's big increase in campaign spending last fall came in the wake of a January 2010 Supreme Court decision that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money anonymously on elections. Martin said his group got donations from corporations and individuals but he declined to name them.
(Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent news service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy organization that isn't affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
MORE FROM KAISER HEALTH NEWS
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011