In meetings, rallies and forums around his district, Rep. Greg Ganske, M.D., (R-Iowa) has been forced to defend the Republican Medicare reform plan that President Clinton vetoed.
The plan, Ganske argues, would have given more choice to seniors while extending the life of the Medicare Part A trust fund. Without changes, that fund will be insolvent by 2001, according to the trustees.
Like many of his fellow GOP freshmen incumbents, Ganske had been under attack by his Democratic opponent, former television weather reporter Connie McBurney, for voting to reduce projected Medicare spending by $270 billion over seven years. McBurney charges that the Republican plan would've destroyed Medicare. In fact, however, under the GOP plan Medicare spending per person would still have risen to more than $7,100 in 2002 from $4,600 in 1996.
After months of hibernation, the fate of Medicare has become an important election issue. It could have a significant impact on races around the country and, ultimately, on which party controls Congress next year.
"Medicare has been a huge issue. The AFL-CIO has run more than $2 million in ads attacking (Ganske) on it," said Barbara Levering, a spokeswoman for the Ganske campaign.
With only a week left before the Nov. 5 election, the fate of Ganske and the more than 70 other GOP freshmen incumbents likely will determine whether the Democrats regain control of the 435-member House after being out of power since 1994. Democrats must pick up 19 seats to grab control.
Like many of his fellow incumbents, Ganske, a plastic surgeon, has sought the aid of health groups in an effort to combat the effect of the Medicare attack. Last week, Ganske received an award from the Coalition for Fairness in Medicare, which includes the Association of Iowa Hospitals and Health Systems.
Meanwhile, the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania, while not formally endorsing freshman Republican incumbent Phil English, has been actively raising funds and working to support English's re-election. English sponsored a bill to create an independent Medicare commission similar to the one proposed by the American Hospital Association.
"Medicare has been a big factor . . . but it doesn't seem to have the traction here that it has in some other districts," said Scott Malan, vice president of legislative services for the Pennsylvania hospital group. "The brouhaha over the solvency of the trust fund has people concerned."
After several months running even or slightly behind his opponent, Ganske has pulled ahead by more than 10 points, according to internal Ganske polls. English is still in a virtual dead heat with Democrat Ronald DiNicola, an attorney.
The Ganske and English races are considered by political pundits to be bellwether House campaigns, giving an indication of the strength of Republican incumbents across the country.
Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, an election analysis newsletter, said last week that control of the House rested with 40 races, most involving GOP freshmen like Ganske and English.
He speculated that many GOP freshmen are now in trouble because they took an ideologically rigid stance on a variety of issues, including Medicare.
"If the House Republican freshmen had taken a cue from the Senate freshmen, we wouldn't be talking about Democrats taking control of the House," Cook said. "They took a 90-degree turn when they should have taken a 45-degree or a 35-degree or a 25-degree turn instead."
Democrats also are threatening the current 53-47 GOP majority in the Senate, where 34 of the chamber's 100 seats are up for election. However, the Democrats have a daunting challenge because of eight Democratic retirements. While six Republican senators-including Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, co-author of the recently approved insurance reform law, and Senate Aging Committee Chairman William Cohen of Maine-also are retiring, those seats are considered to be in Republican strongholds.
Among the senators involved in close races is Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who co-sponsored a measure that required insurers to offer the same coverage for mental health illness as for physical illness. A watered-down version of the bill was approved this year. Wellstone is locked in a rematch with Republican Rudy Boschwitz, whom he defeated in 1990.