Whether the contrary mood of the electorate is anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, anti-establishment, anti-Democrat or just plain populist is a matter of debate. Whatever the case, Tuesday’s primary elections showed angry voters clamoring for change. That has advocates for older Americans worried about important programs.
Americans age 50-plus are “going to be under tremendous pressure from efforts to cut the budget,” says John Rother, AARP executive vice president of policy and strategy. “It’s a real problem if you’re in need of services. I’m not sure people have connected the dots of cutting government, and the services they depend on.”
When the voting booths were rolled back into storage Tuesday night, five-term senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was out of a job, political outsider Rand Paul had won a Kentucky primary for the U.S. Senate against the Republican Party leaders’ favorite son, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas couldn’t get a majority in her own Democratic Party primary and faces a runoff. It remains unclear how the general election will play out some five months from now, when a third of the Senate and the entire House will be up for reelection. But if an anti-government anger translates into new faces in Congress, programs ranging from Social Security to efforts to stimulate jobs to Meals on Wheels could be affected.
Republican Paul, an ophthalmologist and the son of libertarian 2008 presidential candidate Ron Paul, is among those who say they want to shake things up. Paul has spoken in favor of raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits. He walloped Trey Grayson, who had the backing of party leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, by 23 percentage points.
“I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words,” Paul said in his victory speech. “We have come to take our government back.”
Growing federal deficits, especially as the government has responded to the recession, have sparked anger and helped fuel the grassroots Tea Party. In Florida, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio forced the once popular Gov. Charlie Crist out of the GOP Senate primary. Crist is now running as an independent.
Rother says polling shows that even people who say they want the deficit cut don’t necessarily support the steps needed to do it, such as cutting specific programs. “It’s an abstraction to a lot of people today,” Rother says.
Barbara Kennelly, head of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, says her polling shows that despite worries about the deficit, voters don’t want Social Security and Medicare cut. They don’t blame those programs for the federal deficit, she says. And the stock market dive that wiped away billions in retirement funds was a reminder that government Social Security checks are an important part of retirement income.
“People have been jolted by this recession,” Kennelly says.
Any new lawmakers elected this fall—even if they roll in on an anti-government tide—will understand the public wants Social Security and Medicare protected, she says.
“They’re not aliens coming into town,” she says. “People still support these programs and anyone running for office knows what they care about.”
Specter was a longtime, staunch ally for Social Security and Medicare. And Kennelly says that was particularly important when he carried that message as a Republican. His loss was more about anger that he switched parties from the GOP to Democrats, she says.
But many analysts believe incumbents are vulnerable by virtue of being part of a government that people are mad at. “If you have been in Washington too long, you’ve lost the faith and trust of the American people,” says Dan Holler, deputy director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation. “There’s a feeling there’s a need for new blood.”