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Endangered Senate Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are trying to turn the election toward bread-and-butter government programs popular with swing voters. | Tyler Evert/AP Photo

Elections

The majority leader’s comments on entitlements allow Democrats to change the conversation from Brett Kavanaugh.

By BURGESS EVERETT

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MARTINSBURG, W.Va — Joe Manchin looked like a solid bet for reelection after he voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. But Mitch McConnell might have sealed the deal.

Facing some of the toughest campaigns of their careers, the West Virginia Democrat and his moderate colleagues believe they’ve received an unexpected gift from the Senate GOP leader. In a triumphant post-Kavanaugh media tour last week, the Kentucky Republican waxed about his regret over the missed opportunity to repeal Obamacare and the need to reform entitlement programs to rein in the federal deficit.

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Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are vital to West Virginia. And in an interview on Saturday as he prepared for the annual Apple Harvest Parade, Manchin called McConnell’s comments “absolutely ridiculous” and said his Republican opponent, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, would vote to curtail benefits “in a heartbeat.” Manchin also dredged up Morrisey’s support during a 2000 congressional race in New Jersey for partially privatizing Social Security funds.

“He’ll be a yes man, 1,000 percent, whatever they ask him to do,” Manchin said of Morrisey and GOP leaders.

Campaigning just a few feet away from Manchin in this Eastern Panhandle town, Morrisey dinged Manchin for being open to liberal health care policies and called him “one of the most dishonest politicians you’re going to find.” Morrisey insisted he would do nothing to harm senior citizens’ benefits.

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Endangered Senate Democrats are trying to turn the election away from Kavanaugh and the “mob” that the president says their party incited, and toward bread-and-butter government programs that are popular with swing voters in conservative states. It’s a message that resonates in few places more loudly than West Virginia, whose residents rely on government programs at higher rates than most other states.

McConnell (R-Ky.) spent the week talking about how those programs, as opposed to the Republican tax cuts, are driving up the deficit.

“It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future,” McConnell told Bloomberg.

Democrats who experienced dips in the polls following Kavanaugh’s confirmation, including Manchin, believe McConnell’s remarks put them on firmer ground. Asked whether he was campaigning on his vote for Kavanaugh, Manchin replied: “No. But I’m asked that question all the time.” But is he defending health and entitlement programs as a core part of his campaign message? “Absolutely.”

Manchin is far from alone. During a Friday night debate, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) accused Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) of trying to “balance our budgets on the backs of senior citizens.” In Missouri, the first question asked of Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley at a debate on Thursday was his stance on cutting Medicare and Social Security. And at a North Dakota debate the same day, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) badgered GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer about his willingness to reform those programs.

Sen. Joe Manchin, left, and Patrick Morrisey, right, campaign side by side in their race for the Senate in Martinsburg, W.Va. | Burgess Everett/POLITICO

After several days of Democrats’ raising alarms about the stakes of the election and badgering GOP candidates over their entitlement positions, McConnell sought to dispel the idea that he wants to cut Medicare and Social Security. At a Ripon Society event in Washington on Thursday, he explained that he was merely stating that those programs fuel the budget deficit.

“That’s not what I said,” McConnell said. “The drivers of the debt are popular entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. What I said was the only way that can ever be addressed is on a bipartisan basis.”

Asked about McConnell’s explanation, Manchin looked at a reporter incredulously: “Oh, come on now.”

Morrisey said that Manchin’s stated openness to more expansive health care programs, including “Medicare for all,” would be far more damaging than anything he would support. Morrisey said “there’s no way we’re going to be harming seniors on Medicare.”

“The reality is that they have huge vulnerabilities on their own. Joe Manchin said that he was open to single payer, the Bernie Sanders idea… the opportunity to fundamentally change Medicare. That’s Joe Manchin. Those words didn’t come out of my mouth,” Morrisey said.

But in Democrats’ view, the damage has been done. They note that McConnell also declined last week week to rule out another attempt to repeal Obamacare. Eager to change the conversation away from Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the corresponding boost that Republicans experienced, Democratic candidates and leaders spent the week on the attack after playing defense for nearly a month.

Still, not every Republican shied away from McConnell’s remarks. The blunt-spoken Cramer said the GOP leader was merely stating the obvious.

“I am not afraid to confess out loud that if we don’t deal with Medicare and Social Security it won’t be there for our seniors and it certainly won’t be there for future generations,” Cramer said after Heitkamp asked him about his stance during their debate. “And under your plan of doing nothing, guess what happens when it goes insolvent?”

Of course, if Democrats win the House there will be no chance of repealing Obamacare or cutting entitlement programs. Also, Republicans made no move to curtail Medicare or Social Security with congressional majorities and Donald Trump — who’s been wary of touching entitlements himself — in the White House.

But Democrats see a chance to return to an argument they think they can win in red states. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday that “what McConnell did in the last three days is a game changer for us.”

He was “eager to tell the world about his good run, so he did a media tour and ended up handing Democrats campaign gold at a time when they really needed it,” said Adam Jentleson, who used to work for former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid.

Republicans say comments from McConnell don’t resonate the way Trump’s words do.

“What [McConnell’s] said is identical to what he’s said for the last 10 years. I honestly think the reason Democrats are seizing on it is they’re in a tight spot,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for McConnell. “The honest to God truth is: If President Trump doesn’t say it, it doesn’t exist.”

The president has denied being aware of any plans to reform those entitlement program.

“We will protect Medicare and Social Security and Democrats will destroy your Social Security. And they will destroy your Medicare,” Trump said in Montana on Thursday night.

Indeed, Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Leah Vukmir turned to Trump’s defense of those programs when pressed on McConnell’s rhetoric. At a Friday evening debate, she said she was “standing with the president on that.”

But Manchin and other Democrats say that tack won’t work. They say McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have done little to mask their desire to rein in spending on retirement programs after cutting taxes and trying to repeal Obamacare. And they hope strong Democratic opposition to those plans will make the difference in tight races during the last two weeks of the campaign.

“Voters have seen exactly what they’ll get from a GOP Congress,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua, “and believe now more than ever before that the programs they’ve earned are at risk.”

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