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Will Voter Anger Dominate Fall Elections?

What it could mean for older Americans

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.”

Older Americans are part of that anger, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist who studies age and politics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. They’re drawn to newcomer candidates because “they’ve heard it all and seen it all.” They see it as “anything is better than what we have now,” she says.

Many older Americans aren’t concerned about cuts to their Social Security and Medicare benefits, MacManus says, because they don’t believe it will happen. At event after event that she attends as a speaker or observer, older members of audiences say they are worried most about the federal deficit. They’re reminded of the Great Depression; they also have children and grandchildren graduating college with crushing loans.

“I hear it over and over again: It’s not about me, it’s about my children and grandchildren,” she says.

President Obama appointed a commission to consider ways to reduce the federal deficit and debt. It won’t make its recommendations until after Election Day. But economists say it must include changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare because they are a fast-growing portion of the federal budget.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the commission might give lawmakers political cover to tackle the controversial idea of reining in the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Or maybe not.

“Sadly, we may just have to wait for the debt bomb to explode later this decade. Americans only respond to an obvious crisis,” Sabato says.

Holler said the angry political climate puts the deficit on the front burner and makes people understand they need to make sacrifices to solve it. Unemployment insurance extensions, he says, are just one example that should be considered for cuts.

“Everything is on the table,” Holler says. “It’s apparent the government has limited resources. That may mean reassessing some of these social insurance programs people have come to take for granted.”

How much Social Security, Medicare or social programs are changed partly will be a function of who runs the legislative branch. Democrats are likely to lose at least a couple of dozen seats in the House and five to seven in the Senate but retain their majorities, according to Nathan Gonzales, political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report, which handicaps congressional races. The Rothenberg Political Report says 79 House seats are competitive this year—and 68 of those are currently held by Democrats.

Democrats touted their victory Tuesday night in a special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania. But Republicans were quick to point out that the winning Democrat did not support the landmark health care reform pushed through this year by President Obama.

“If we get a large number of Republicans, as expected, they won’t be looking to expand anything. Republicans are running on cutting taxes, cutting government, cutting spending,” Gonzales said.

Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says they also are running on the need to repeal portions of health care reform. People age 65-plus, especially, are angry about the reform because of cuts to the Medicare program that help pay for it, he says. Voters are saying that “if there are not significant changes to the bill, they will be sending a message in November,” Lindsay said.

But Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Republicans have turned off the electorate with proposals to switch Social Security to a program with private securities accounts and to partially “privatize” Medicare as well.

As politicians prepare for the fall election, Congress still must grapple with how to tackle the lagging economy. Voters ages 50 to 64 have been particularly hard-hit by the recession and often have a harder time finding work after being laid off. So cuts to unemployment compensation benefits, job training and other programs designed to create jobs would sting.

Some of the voter anger this year has focused on anti-recession measures like aiding automakers. Rother says the public anger could make lawmakers reluctant to enact legislation needed to pump up the economy.

“It creates a tension between doing what’s good for the economy, versus what’s good for your political career,” Rother says.

Tamara Lytle was Washington bureau chief and a correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel from 1997 to 2008.