The Ryan Budget Vote: An Upstream Swim for Charlie Bass

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Hillsborough, NH

Rep. Charlie Bass knew he was in for a rough night. The first question out of the gate during his Wednesday town hall in Hillsborough, NH was about his vote for Paul Ryan’s budget. And the second. And the third and the fourth, fifth and sixth questions. “I enjoyed the discourse,” he said, almost hopefully, afterward. “It’s important to speak with people who disagree with me. Of course there was going to be backlash.”

To be fair, most of those politely probing him – they might have been angrier without the presence of two state police officers, a new phenomenon in the post-Gabby Giffords era  – were Democrats who’d never voted for him. But there were a few swing voters in the mix. Erik Spitzbarth, 62, and his wife Diane Loomis drove 15 minutes from Hancock. They are the quintessential swing voters. Both are independents who voted for Bass in 2010. But Spitzbarth voted for John McCain in 2008 and Loomis pulled the lever for Barack Obama. They pay $1,700 a month in health care premiums. If health care reform had included an early buy-in for those 60+ into Medicare, they say they’d be die-hard ObamaCare supporters. But as it stands, they like neither health care reform nor Ryan’s budget. “This is just salt in the wound,” Spitzbarth – questioner No. 4 – lamented to Bass. Afterward he said he was fed up with both parties. “I think Washington should go green and recycle all of the waste,” he said as Loomis nodded at his side, “the system is broken.”

In fact, Bass is a recycled good: the “freshman” is a retread who represented the state’s second district from 1995 to 2007. “I’ve voted for him in the past and against him,” Loomis said. Spitzbarth and Loomis are the crucial type of voters Bass needs in order to keep his seat: Bass beat Ann McLane Kuster by 48.35% of the vote to 46.76% in 2010 – a margin of just 3,570 votes. And 2010 was a wave Republican year – unlikely to be repeated in 2012 with President Obama on the ballot. Kuster is likely to run again.

Redistricting could help Bass, but the district is one of 14 districts held by Republicans and won by both Obama and John Kerry. “Bass is one of the few Republicans in big trouble, not necessarily because of national climate or his actions, but more the trend line of his district,” says David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan group that tracks congressional races. “He only won by a handful in a great GOP year.”

All the more reason for Bass to resist the party line and vote with his moderate district in mind – but it was a temptation he didn’t give in to on the Ryan budget. “I’m not surprised it’s controversial: This is a groundbreaking budget that really pivots the direction where government will go,” Bass says, explaining why he didn’t hesitate to vote yes. “I wanted to vote for something that would change the relationship of the federal government to the people.”

What does Bass have to worry about? The wrath of Spitzbarth, Loomis and the 13% of Bass’s district who are 65 and older. Although those 55 and older would be grandfathered in to the current system under Ryan’s plan, hardly a day goes by that Democrats don’t remind Bass’s constituents that it would fundamentally change Medicare – giving seniors money to purchase private insurance rather than directly provide government coverage. Bass spent a lot of time at his town hall trying to explain why it’s not, in his characterization, a voucher system. But he didn’t convince Spitzbarth and Loomis. “I like Medicare the way it is,” Spitzbarth told Bass to applause from the audience, “don’t screw it up.”

Bass’s case isn’t helped by the high-profile defection of two of his colleagues: Denny Rehberg, who is running for Senate in Montana, and David McKinley, who comes from a district in West Virginia that’s similar to Bass’s. Both Rehberg and McKinley said this week that they voted against Ryan’s budget because they were concerned that the plan could hurt seniors – bolstering the Democrats’ case. Bass tried to explain to the crowd over and over: “This is just a blue print, budgets are non-binding… It’s a starting point.” But Spitzbarth and Loomis left unimpressed: “It could affect my vote,” he said, Loomis nodding her agreement. “I was over this from the get-go.”