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Paul Ryan hits political mess

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
May 26, 2011

An election in New York state has politicians and pundits across the country buzzing about the political future of the congressman from southern Wisconsin’s 1st District.


Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville has been a shoo-in to win re-election for most of his seven terms in the House of Representatives. Now, Democrats see a chink in Ryan’s armor.


The story began last month, when Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and a leading GOP voice in fiscal matters, released his “Path to Prosperity.”


The Path calls for cutting spending to ward off what Ryan sees as disaster for the nation if the massive and growing federal deficit is not reined in.


The plan calls for a big change in Medicare, the program that designed to provide health care for citizens 65 and older.


Democrats pounced, saying Ryan would turn Medicare into a voucher system and require seniors to pay more for health care, although only for people now under age 55.


Ryan’s likely Democratic opponent in the 2012 elections, Rob Zerban of Kenosha, soon launched a website called “Hands Off My Grandma.”


Ryan defended his plan, accusing Democrats of demagoguery and class warfare.


Ryan says Medicare will become insolvent if nothing is done, leading to waiting lists and health care rationing.


Some Republicans have expressed doubts about Ryan’s Medicare plan, but the incumbent Republican in New York’s 26th District, Jane Corwin, endorsed it. The Democratic challenger, Kathy Hochul, jumped on the issue and rode it to an upset victory in one of the state’s most conservative congressional districts after being considered an all-but-certain loser, though GOP officials cited the presence of a third-party contender in their unexpected defeat; Jack Davis, a former Democrat who ran as a tea party contender, took 9 percent of the vote.


Readers of political tea leaves were quick to focus on what Tuesday’s Democratic victory means for Ryan and Republicans in general in the 2012 elections.


“Ryan has been able to win in a Democratic district because he has cultivated this nice-guy image, but I think at the end of the day, when people see what his plans for Medicare are—making people pay thousands of dollars more out of pocket—I think they’re going to reject him,” said Graeme Zielinski, Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman.


Medicare is not in the trouble Ryan says it is, and Ryan should not be talking austerity measures when he supports tax breaks for billionaires, Zielinski said.


Zielinski admitted the Democrats have not run strong candidates against Ryan, but he said that’s about to change with Zerban, a little-known businessman and Kenosha County Board member.


To suggest Ryan and the Republican Party are in trouble because of a special election in New York is “absurd,” countered Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.


The same kind of predictions were made when a Democrat won a congressional election in Pennsylvania in May 2010, but Republicans were the winners that fall, Jefferson pointed out.


Jefferson laughed at the suggestion that Ryan’s political obituary is being written or that the Medicare proposal is putting the GOP in hot water with voters.


“There’s a reason Paul Ryan is becoming more popular in national Republican circles,” Jefferson said, and it’s because he’s the only one to articulate a plan for the country’s fiscal future.


Longtime political observer and UW-Whitewater professor emeritus John Kozlowicz said he’d still bet on Ryan to win.


Kozlowicz noted that a Tea Party candidate in the New York race drew votes away from the Republican, enough to account for the Democrat’s victory.


There are no polling results yet to show whether Medicare actually was the issue that tipped the scales, Kozlowicz added. Also, the incumbent made a tactical mistake by being slow to react to the Democrat’s attacks, he said.


“I wouldn’t use this election to say, ‘Wow. Ryan’s in big trouble,’ but it’s certainly one of those things that gets your attention,” Kozlowicz said.


“If you’re a Democrat, it’s a kind of hopeful thing that you want to grab onto,” Kozlowicz added.



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