By JOHN LYON
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — A Democratic candidate’s victory in a New York congressional race has been widely attributed to voter backlash against a Republican proposal to revamp Medicare — a proposal that was supported by all of the Republican members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation. "Medicare, Medicare, Medicare," Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said last week in explaining why Democrat Kathy Hochul was able to win in a traditionally conservative Republican district. After losing their majority in the U.S. House last year, Democrats are hoping Hochul’s win signals that they are poised to win back enough seats, including one or two in Arkansas, to retake the House in 2012. The GOP also made significant gains in Arkansas last year, winning a Senate seat, three House seats, including two previously held by Democrats, three constitutional offices and enough state legislative seats to leave Democrats with only slim majorities in each chamber. But Arkansas Democrats say the next election cycle may be tougher for Republicans who supported a controversial budget plan by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to replace traditional Medicare for people younger than 55 with a system in which insurance companies would offer coverage while the government contributes toward the cost of premiums. Medicare would not change for people who are now 55 or older under Ryan’s plan, which passed in the House but was defeated in the Senate. "Even though that plan did not end up passing, people see now where their cards lie and see that they are willing to cut benefits to seniors" while cutting taxes for oil companies and millionaires, Democratic Party of Arkansas spokeswoman Candace Martin said. "People are going to remember that," she said. Martin said U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, all of whom will be up for re-election in 2012, may not be the only Arkansas lawmakers risking a backlash. She said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., could be reminded of his vote when he is up for re-election in 2016, and Republicans holding state office could suffer, too. "We saw national issues take a place in the last election (in state races), and that certainly could be the case during the next election cycle as well," she said. Republican Party of Arkansas spokeswoman Katherine Vasilos said the Democratic Party "has decided that misleading voters to win their next election is more important than saving Medicare for Arkansas seniors." Medicare is going bankrupt, and "Arkansas Republicans are serious about protecting a service that provides millions of seniors with access to quality health care," she said. Two Democratic groups conducted media campaigns in Arkansas last month targeting Crawford and Griffin for their votes for the Ryan plan. Womack, who represents the Republican-dominated 3rd District in Northwest Arkansas, evidently was not seen as vulnerable enough to target. Griffin said last week, "The folks criticizing our action on Medicare, they’re not talking about their plan versus our plan, because they don’t have a plan. ... If you want to destroy Medicare, you would keep it just as it is because Medicare goes bankrupt in about a decade." Any voter alarm over the Ryan plan will be dispelled by the 2012 elections, Griffin predicted. "Over the next year people will get all the facts, and I believe that we ultimately will be seen as we are, which is trying to solve a very difficult problem," he said. Boozman said as an optometrist he understands the importance of Medicare to its recipients, but that he voted for the Ryan plan "because it was an effort to put something on the table and begin the negotiations. This was a vote to proceed so we could have the discussion on the floor of the Senate as to the direction that we needed to go." Boozman said he is not concerned about a backlash. He said that when then-U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., accused him of supporting privatization of Social Security in the 2010 Senate race, the charge did not stick "because the American people understand that those kinds of accusations are just an effort to scare our elderly." Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, said it’s likely that "what happened in New York isn’t an aberration." "If you look at patterns over time, it’s likely that New York is just a natural process of the political pendulum swinging back in the other direction," Parry said. "The issue always is, how far does it swing and how long does it take, how deep does it reach? That’s what we don’t know yet." She said 2010 was an aberration, with the economy and the health care debate seeming to sweep other issues aside. If the economy continues to improve, however, Arkansas voters may revert to their traditional practice of rewarding politicians who are in the middle, she said. "If the Republicans can be painted as extremists in the way that Republicans were successful in painting Democrats in 2008 and 2010, then in Arkansas that’s a disadvantage," she said. The Associated Press contributed to this report.