WASHINGTON — When Blake Masters was running for the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona, he proposed what he called a “fresh and innovative” idea.
“Maybe we should privatize Social Security. Correctly? Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it,” he said at a June forum with the fiscally conservative group FreedomWorks.
The Masters then backed down. “I don’t want to privatize Social Security,” he told The Arizona Republic after winning the primary. “I think, in context, I was talking about something very different. We cannot change the system. We can’t pull the rug out from the elderly.”
Democrats saw an opening in the Arizona primary race. The party’s Senate campaign arm released an ominous TV ad underscoring the material, accusing Masters of trying to “cut our Social Security and privatize it” to fund tax breaks for the wealthy while “playing our savings in the stock exchange”.
Asked to clarify his position, Katie Miller, a spokeswoman for the Masters campaign, told NBC News: “Blake’s position has always been clear. All he wants to do is incentivize future generations to save through private accounts.” He described his attitude as “Social Security-and.”
Ahead of the 2022 election, Masters is one of many Republicans tapping into the so-called “third rail” of American politics — a costly but popular pillar of the safety net that provides monthly cash benefits to those 62 and older who vote in large numbers. In major Senate and House races across the country, GOP candidates have called for reducing long-term Social Security spending to combat inflation and fix the program’s finances. Democrats are trying to make them pay a political price, arguing that the same Republicans created a budget hole by cutting taxes for top earners.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said on a recent campaign trail that Social Security was “not set up right” and that they would be better off investing the money in the stock market. Earlier, Johnson he said a radio broadcast that Social Security and Medicare should be abolished as “mandatory” programs and subject to “discretionary” spending, meaning Congress would have to renew them annually or they would expire.
His Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, responded that the two-term senator “wants to strip seniors of the benefits they’ve worked for all their lives” and “throw middle-class Wisconsin overboard” to serve corporate sponsors.
President Joe Biden listened to Johnson on Saturday, saying on Twitter that the senator “wants Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every year.”
Social Security retirement and survivor benefits are solvent until 2034, after which the program could provide 77 percent of projected payments, according to a recent trustees report.
Democrats, who like to take credit as the party that created Social Security, have tried to steer opposition by proposing measures to expand benefits and lift the earnings cap on payroll taxes to inject new funding into the program.
Democratic strategists have long viewed conservative calls to cut the program as electoral dynamite, particularly with older voters.
“Republican plans to cut Social Security and Medicare could be deadly attacks because they drive a huge wedge down the middle of the Republican coalition,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an adviser to former President Barack Obama, who ran in 2012 against Romney-Ryan plan. for partial privatization of Medicare. “It’s hard to think of anything more unpopular than cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.”
In February, Senate Republican campaign chairman Rick Scott released an 11-point plan “to save America” that calls for “all federal law” to expire in five years unless Congress decides to “re-pass it ». Democrats said his idea could sink Social Security.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly rejected Scott’s agenda, vowing that a potential GOP majority “would not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sinks Social Security and Medicare into in five years”.
McConnell saw heavy backlash in his own party in 2005 and 2012 when he called for changes to the retirement safety net.
“Make adjustments as people live longer”
The Republican Study Committee, a large group of House conservatives, proposed a budget in June that would gradually raise the retirement age to collect Social Security, based on changing life expectancy and reducing benefits over the long term, using a new formula. The budget is guaranteed to be ignored in the Democratic-led House, but could be passed if the GOP wins control of that chamber this fall.
Some Republican House candidates have called for cuts in long-term retirement spending to reduce the debt.
Among them is Scott Baugh, who is challenging Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., in a competitive Orange County district that Democrats carried in 2018. In a recent interview in his Newport Beach office, Baugh said Congress should to “reform entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare to address unfunded liabilities and balance the budget over the long term.
He praised the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan as “a very good effort” and added that Social Security payments “we have to make adjustments as people live longer.” He called for a bipartisan effort in which “one of the tools” in the toolbox might be to raise the retirement age. (The 2010 framework went nowhere as Democrats rejected pension spending cuts and House Republicans opposed new taxes to balance the budget.)
After the interview, his campaign adviser, Dave Gilliard, emailed NBC News to make clear that Baugh did not approve of cutting benefits for current retirees or workers.
“Scott does not support raising the age for Social Security benefits for anyone currently contributing to the system,” he said.