Paul Ryan may have breathed new life into Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, but he's also rattling the congressional campaign landscape, leaving vulnerable down ballot Republicans with an uncomfortable choice: Embrace a radical new vision on entitlements or run from their party's national ticket.
Republicans hailing from Democratic-leaning districts, like Illinois Rep. Robert Dold and Massachusetts candidate Richard Tisei, are trying to create some distance from the Ryan world view. Other congressional Republicans in tight races, like New York's Ann Marie Buerkle and Florida's Allen West are launching into vigorous defenses of their votes for the Ryan budget, which proposes partial privatization of Medicare by offering subsidies for seniors to purchase insurance.
The Ryan pick is also shaking up the races that will decide which party controls the Senate. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller -- appointed to the Senate last year -- is already under fire for the unique distinction of being the only lawmaker who voted for the Ryan budget in both chambers. Montana Republican Senate candidate Denny Rehberg is running fast from the Ryan budget. And down in Florida, a state where the senior citizen vote is crucial, vulnerable Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson could barely contain his glee at the opportunity to attack the Ryan budget.
The reality is that Ryan is now every Republicans' running mate whether they like it or not, forcing GOP candidates who would just as soon run from the debate over senior citizen entitlements to embrace the third rail of American politics like never before.
One GOP insider lamented that party leaders "have spent the last year" trying to take Medicare off the political front burner, but the Ryan pick "puts it all back out there now."
Tisei, running against Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) in a closely watched race outside Boston, said he knows Democrats are going to "demonize" Ryan, but says "I just don't think it's going to be an issue in this race."
Polls have regularly shown opposition to the Ryan plan is strongest among seniors and Nelson seized upon the Ryan pick in his remarks on Saturday.
"Gov. Romney's pick is not good for seniors in Florida. It changes Medicare as we know it," the senator said at a campaign stop in Jupiter, according to the Palm Beach Post. "I don't think we want to have senior citizens in their retirement years having to haggle with insurance companies over their health care."
Trying to turn the tables, the Romney campaign announced on Sunday that Ryan will travel to Florida next weekend to "highlight POTUS' record of slashing Medicare for current Florida seniors," tweeted Romney aide Brendan Buck.
But Republican unease with the Ryan plan was on full display earlier this summer, when the National Republican Senate Committee put money behind an ad that touted Rehberg's opposition to the polarizing budget plan.
"And Rehberg refused to support a Republican budget plan that could harm the Medicare programs so many of Montana's seniors rely on," the 30-second commericial promoting Rehberg's Senate candidacy blared.
In his statement Saturday, Rehberg was laudatory of Ryan's "character, intelligence and creativity" but without specificity, also acutely noted "the few occasions where we haven't [agreed]."
GOP strategists involved in House and Senate races acknowledged that Ryan's selection is a dual-edged sword for them. On the one hand, Ryan is young, charismatic, beloved by the conservative base, and a compelling spokesman for Republican policies on spending, tax cuts and the role of government in every American's life.
Democrats have spent years pillorying the Ryan budget, with varying degrees of success in selected races, meaning the Wisconsin Republican has political baggage that every GOP incumbent and challenger must now face during the run-up to Election Day.
It's hard to imagine a race where the pick will loom larger than Nevada.
Following the selection, Heller praised Ryan's "courage to make the tough decisions needed to restore our nation's fiscal health." But Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley saw a ripe opportunity to drive home what Democrats see as Heller's biggest weakness: Voting to reconfigure Medicare.
"No one is happier today than Sen. Dean Heller, one of Rep. Paul Ryan's strongest supporters who said he was 'proud' to vote twice for the Ryan budget plan that essentially ends Medicare by turning it over to private insurance companies."
For Buerkle, with or without Ryan on the ticket, her vote for the budget has already been a centerpiece of her opponent Dan Maffei's campaign. Maffei said in a statement the "Ryan-Buerkle vision" for the middle class is one where families "pay higher taxes and don't have Medicare as we know it, and women don't have the right to life saving health care."
Instead of running from it, Buerkle said the Ryan pick provides Republicans with even more of an opportunity to contrast the Ryan plan with President Barack Obama's health care law that Republicans say will reduce Medicare benefits and ration care to seniors.
"This administration and the Democrats are being so disingenuous and so deceitful to seniors about [the Ryan plan]," she said told POLITICO. "Having him as the VP on the ticket will certainly encourage that discussion and we'll continue to shed more light on what the Affordable Care Act actually does to seniors."
Buerkle called Ryan pick "bold" and "an excellent choice" and she praised the budget chairman.
"He has the courage and the moral fortitude that this administration has lacked," she said. "He has taken us forward, he has put forward a plan, he's gotten beaten up about it. But he does what's right he doesn't do what's politically expedient."
Freshman Rep. Allen West, a top target for Democrats this fall, was equally enthusiastic about Romney's choice.
"[Ryan has] consistently provided realistic, actionable solutions that will keep our promises to our seniors while putting our economy back on the 'Road to Prosperity,'" West said in a statement, referencing the official title of the Ryan plan. "Unlike President Obama, he put forward a serious budget."
One of the problems for Republicans is that Democrats have a very simple entitlement-focused message that can be used effectively TV ads: They portray Ryan as taking away grandma's Medicare. For Republicans, defending the Ryan budget is a more complicated task and harder to fit into a quick 30-second spot.
But West, who is running in South Florida's new 18th congressional district, has already put out a new ad directed at senior citizens where he says simply "when it comes to cutting spending, there must be one rule: that is to keep our promises to America's seniors."
Some Republican candidates were much more lukewarm in their praise for Ryan's vision for the future.
Tisei said he thinks the plan was a "good starting point" but still has to work to distance himself from the Romney-Ryan ticket.
"I can't say I agree with Paul Ryan on everything, I didn't agree with Romney when he was governor all the time," Tisei said. "But at the very least they are going be honest with people and debate solutions. Ryan is presenting ideas and on an intellectual basis. [Tierney] is going to go around and demonize Paul Ryan and he's been doing it for years here. I just don't think it's going to be an issue in this race."
Similarly in Illinois, Dold has said the Ryan budget was a good place to start a policy discussion and told Patch.com he was "willing to look at any serious proposal when it comes to comprehensive tax reform." But unlike Tisei, Dold twice voted for Ryan's budget proposals and his opponent Brad Schneider, likely won't let him forget it.
Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, described Romney selection of a Ryan as a dream come true for House Democrats. Israel says the move allows Democrats to pound the GOP proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid - issues where his party has traditionally had an advantage over Republicans - rather than the state of the U.S. economy.
"I was shocked," Israel said of the Ryan announcement. "I was secretly hoping they would pick Ryan. With all the polling on his budget, I didn't think they would make my hopes come true."
Israel believes the controversy over the Ryan budget and Medicare - - will only benefit Democrats in House districts with a high concentration of older American, such as in Florida.
"The Ryan budget is a debate we win, and Mitt Romney just nationalized the debate," Israel added.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, aware of the political liabilities of the Ryan selection, circulated a press release on Saturday - just hours after the vice-presidential announcement - pounding Democrats on Medicare.
"House Democrats have built a long record of votes to gut and bankrupt Medicare," the NRCC release asserted. "The Democrats cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare to pay for ObamaCare and empowered a board of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats empowered to gut Medicare."
Polls show that a fight over the Ryan budget could be the decisive factor in certain battleground districts.
A Democracy Corps poll released earlier this month showed that 52 percent of voters in these swing districts supported the GOP message of the Ryan plan. But once both Democrats and Republicans aired their arguments, Democrats squeak slightly ahead, with 47 percent of voters opposing the budget and 46 percent backing it.
"This budget is very vulnerable to attack--voters do not like the individual elements and a debate back and forth works to Democrats' advantage," read the polling memo from Democracy Corps.
David Catanese, John Bresnahan, Alex Isenstadt and Seung Min Kim contributed to this story.
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