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Forget the Florida primary, watch Oregon on Medicare

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The political world is squarely focused on the Florida primary Tuesday, where Mitt Romney is expected to win the latest contest for the Republican nomination. But if you want to get a sense of where the health policy debate is going in this election cycle, the race you should be watching is all the way across the country. In a special election in Oregon’s First Congressional District, both parties are testing out their Medicare messages for the coming year.

Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat, and Rob Cornilles, a Republican, are vying to fill the seat that’s sat open ever since Rep. David Wu resigned in April. As Bloomberg’s Heidi Przybyla reports, the two have been trading barbs over Medicare, making it a central issue in the campaign. As Bonamici put it in a recent debate, “My opponent on day one of this campaign attacked me on Medicare and Medicare Advantage.”

Cornilles has indeed gone after Bonamici and her support for the Affordable Care Act, accusing her in a recent television ad (above) of “supporting a plan that takes $500 billion from Medicare, raises taxes and hurts seniors.” The Democratic Party of Oregon has countered by linking Cornilles to the Budget Chair Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget that would transform Medicare into a voucher program. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee here in Washington has also advanced similar attacks.

Fact-checking organizations have scrutinized both claims and found them not completely accurate. Nevertheless, these look to be the messages that the parties have settled on, and for good political reason. To describe Medicare as a politically fraught issue would be an understatement: Changes to the program are rarely, if ever, a winning issue. Kaiser Family Foundation tracking polls have found 43 percent of seniors believe Medicare will be “worse off” after the Affordable Care Act. Likewise, just 30 percent of seniors support restructuring Medicare into a system where they use subsidies to shop for private coverage, as the Ryan plan would do.

Oregon’s First District is solidly Democratic territory, a seat that Democrats have held since 1974, so it’s unclear how much Medicare barbs will effect the race’s outcome (Recent polls have, however, shown the race tightening, with Bonamici down to a 4-point lead). But what we do get is a preview of the political, health policy playbook that both parties will likely turn to in 2012.

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