Ballots are going out on Thursday, May 17, in the special election between Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly to complete Gabrielle Giffords' congressional term.
Here's what we're hearing from those who are whispering about the race: Internal polls show both candidates are within a few points of each other—and within the polls' margin of error. Somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of the electorate is undecided.
In other words: It's a pure toss-up at this point.
If all of the advertising we've been seeing on our TV screens is any indication, both Barber and Kelly are focusing on capturing the hearts and minds of the seniors in Congressional District 8.
Last week, Barber won the endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group that opposes the privatization of Social Security and the transformation of Medicare into a voucher program.
Phillip Rotondi, a senior political adviser for the group, said that Barber would "take to Washington exactly the kind of common-sense leadership we need in the House of Representatives as Congress addresses programs that are essential for seniors and their families. ... He is on record and committed fully to fight the tough fight for Arizona residents and all of us nationwide."
At a gathering of about 100 seniors and campaign volunteers at the Lighthouse/City YMCA on Monday, May 7, Barber reiterated his support for Medicare and Social Security.
"A big part of why I'm running for office is to make sure that people remain part of the middle class, especially those who rely so much on Social Security and Medicare," Barber said. "Unfortunately, my opponent has a very different view. Jesse Kelly would put the rich first and leave the middle class and seniors last. We will not let that happen."
Medicare and Social Security have become the big issues in the CD 8 race, partially because Kelly has so often said that both programs should be privatized. Kelly backed off both of those positions earlier this month, declaring on his website: "I do not support privatizing, eliminating or phasing out these programs in any way."
But Kelly appears to have trouble keeping his story straight. By last week, he was back to telling the Arizona Daily Star that he did support the privatization of Social Security for younger workers, which sounds like "phasing out" to us.
Kelly's continuing evolution in his positions on Social Security and Medicare led Barber to joke last week that his opponent was "undergoing an extreme makeover."
Kelly received an endorsement of his own last week, from the 60 Plus Association, an advocacy group that supports the privatization of Medicare and Social Security.
THE CD 8 AIR WAR ESCALATES
The stories about competing endorsements and shifting positions on Social Security and Medicare in the Congressional District 8 race have been overshadowed by the money pouring into Southern Arizona from Washington, D.C.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super-PAC, are spending at least $800,000 through Election Day; the National Republican Congressional Committee is spending at least $600,000, and the GOP ticket is getting a boost from the Citizens United, a right-wing super-PAC that announced this week that it would spend $100,000 on TV ads.
The Republicans are focusing on how Democrat Ron Barber won't support the complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare; the Democrats are focusing on all the radical statements Jesse Kelly has made about privatizing Medicare and Social Security, and eliminating the minimum wage and corporate taxes, as well as his other Tea Party rhetoric.
The NRCC ads, as we explained in last week's Skinny, rely on a claim that has been repeatedly declared "false" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check operation PolitiFact. The Republicans have been pushing the talking point that Obamacare cuts Medicare by $500 billion.
As PolitiFact explains it, the federal government projects what programs such as Medicare and Social Security are going to cost in the future so that the government can anticipate what kind of demands will be placed on the budget.
The Affordable Care Act made a variety of policy changes to the Medicare program in order to reduce its costs over the next decade by $500 billion. That doesn't mean that Medicare has actually been cut; in fact, the federal government spent $499 billion on Medicare in 2009 and still plans to spend $929 billion in 2020, according to PolitiFact.
Daniel Scarpinato, an NRCC spokesman who has the job of helping Kelly win the special election, acknowledged that some kind of Medicare spending adjustment is necessary, because "we know that Medicare is heading toward bankruptcy if we don't find a way to protect and preserve it."
In an interview with the Weekly, Scarpinato also conceded that while Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they have voted to include $500 billion in spending reductions in the House budget cooked up by Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
But as we mentioned last week, Scarpinato argues that the GOP reductions in future spending are different from the Democratic reductions in future spending.
"The Ryan budget finds long-term savings to extend the life of Medicare, and the Obamacare plan actually cuts Medicare to fund a new entitlement program," Scarpinato says.
Democrats argue that the Ryan budget actually uses the long-term savings to give tax breaks to America's wealthiest citizens, while taking away health-care coverage from the middle class.
The Ryan plan works to partially privatize Medicare, giving seniors vouchers that they could use to purchase private health insurance. But critics of the plan say that the vouchers don't keep pace with the growth of medical inflation, and a Congressional Budget Office analysis showed that seniors would have to pay more out of pocket for their medical expenses.
"It divides up the risk pool in a way that if you're older and facing surgery, long hospital stays or rehabilitation expenses, you're going to be paying a bigger percentage out of pocket, or you have to pay more for the more-expensive (insurance) plan," says Phillip Rotondi, the aforementioned senior political adviser for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
While seniors would have the option of keeping traditional Medicare, Rotondi says that healthier people would opt to purchase private insurance, leaving the federal government on the hook to cover the health-care costs of older and sicker Americans.
Rotondi points out that the Affordable Care Act includes reforms that have lowered health-care costs for seniors, including more subsidies for prescription drugs and preventative care.
"I've seen nothing that would continue the improvements to Medicare if they repeal the act," Rotondi says.
ANOTHER BARBER-KELLY DEBATE
Democrat Ron Barber, Republican Jesse Kelly and Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis will have their second debate of the election season on Wednesday, May 23.
The debate, sponsored by the Arizona Daily Star, begins at 7 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, 3800 E. River Road.