HAMBURG, N.Y. - Rep. Kathy Hochul already pulled off one upset victory in this Congress - and she might not be done surprising people.
A Democrat running in the Empire State's most Republican district, Hochul's May 2011 special election win was substantially fueled by talking about Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget blueprint and its effects on Medicare.
But if Hochul wins this tough re-election race next month, it will be her strength as a retail politician that clinches it for her. Democratic messaging on Medicare isn't the political kill shot it once was - at least not here.
Republicans have worked hard to effectively blunt Democratic attacks on their votes or support for the Ryan budget by pointing to the roughly $716 billion in cuts in future Medicare spending embedded in the Affordable Care Act.
While Democrats still have an edge discussing the popular entitlement program, top Democrats concede broader GOP messaging has worked to an extent.
"You have to give the Republicans kudos for how they've shaped ACA and the '$716 billion cuts for to pay for Obamacare,'" said one influential Democratic pollster who surveys across the nation. "It has absolutely helped to neutralize our advantage on Medicare. You have to give to them that."
Hochul's Republican opponent, businessman and former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, was out of the gate in early September with an ad hitting Hochul for her vote against repeal of the Affordable Care Act to impugn her bona fides on protecting Medicare. Neither Hochul nor her Democratic allies have yet aired ads about Medicare, focusing instead on issues of debt and deficit.
The Republican attacks are part of the reason Hochul is here Monday, stumping at a nursing home in the town where she began her political career and talking about the much-loved entitlement program.
The metronome-like puff of an elderly man's oxygen is the only sound competing with Hochul's short speech.
She knocks the Ryan budget for hurting seniors and says the real kicker is that the plan would "cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires."
"That is a different set of priorities than I have," she says, her voice rising.
Hochul opens the floor to questions and an older woman raises her hand and looks concerned. "That $713 billion they took out of Medicare. What is that?" she asks, referring to cuts in future Medicare spending in the Affordable Care Act.
Hochul says beneficiaries will not be affected and notes that the savings are also part of Ryan's budget blueprint. The woman remains uneasy.
There's not a lot of Democratic turf in the newly configured 27th district. But here, in the district's largest town where she served on the town board, the Congresswoman is in friendly territory. She talks to about 25 people: senior citizens, their families and staff. She talks about her family and taking care of a sick aunt. She mentions her job as a teenager, working at a pizza joint.
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