WASHINGTON — When Blake Masters was running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Arizona, he floated what he called a “fresh and innovative” idea.
“Maybe we should privatize Social Security. Right? Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it,” he said at a June forum with the fiscal conservative group FreedomWorks.
Masters subsequently backtracked. “I do not want to privatize Social Security,” he told the Arizona Republic after he won the primary. “I think, in context, I was talking about something very different. We can’t change the system. We can’t pull the rug out from seniors.”
Democrats saw an opening in the key Arizona race. The party's Senate campaign arm rolled out an ominous TV ad highlighting the footage, accusing Masters of seeking to “cut our Social Security and privatize it” to finance tax breaks for the wealthy, while “gambling our life savings on the stock market.”
Asked to clarify his position, Katie Miller, Masters campaign spokesperson, told NBC News: “Blake’s position has always been clear. All he wants to do is incentivize future generations to save through private accounts.” She described his stance as “Social Security-and.”
Ahead of the 2022 election, Masters is one of many Republicans to touch what has been called the “third rail” of American politics — a costly but popular pillar of the safety net that gives monthly cash benefits to those 62 and older, who vote in big numbers. In major Senate and House races across the country, GOP candidates have called for cutting long-term Social Security spending to tackle inflation and resolve the program's finances. Democrats are trying to make them pay a political price, arguing that the same Republicans created a budget hole by cutting taxes for top earners.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said at a recent campaign stop that Social Security “was set up improperly” and that it would have been better to invest the money in the stock market. Earlier, Johnson told a radio show that Social Security and Medicare should be axed as "mandatory" programs and be subject to "discretionary" spending, meaning Congress would have to renew them yearly or they'd end.
His Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, responded that the two-term incumbent senator “wants to strip seniors of the benefits they’ve worked their entire lives for” and “throw Wisconsin’s middle class overboard” to serve corporate donors.
President Joe Biden took a swing at Johnson on Saturday, saying on Twitter that the senator "wants Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every year."
Social Security retirement and survivor benefits are solvent until 2034, after which the program could offer 77% of projected payouts, according to a recent trustees report.
Democrats, who like to take credit as a party for creating Social Security, have sought to drive the contrast by proposing measures to expand benefits and lift the earnings cap on payroll taxes to infuse new funding into the program.
Democratic strategists have long viewed conservative calls for cutting the program as electoral dynamite, mainly with older voters.
“Republican plans to cut Social Security and Medicare can be lethal attacks because they drive a huge wedge in the middle of the Republican coalition,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an adviser to former President Barack Obama, who ran in 2012 against the Romney-Ryan plan to partially privatize Medicare. “It’s hard to think of something more unpopular than cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.”
In February, Senate Republican campaign chair Rick Scott released an 11-point plan “to rescue America” that requires “all federal legislation” to sunset in five years, unless Congress decides to “pass it again.” Democrats said his idea could sink Social Security.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly disowned Scott’s agenda, vowing that a potential GOP majority “would not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
McConnell witnessed the hefty blowback to his party in 2005 and 2012 when it called for changes to the retirement safety net.
'Make adjustments as people live longer'
The Republican Study Committee, a large group of House conservatives, proposed a budget in June that would incrementally raise the retirement age to collect Social Security, based on changing life spans, and lower benefits over the long term by using a new formula. The budget is guaranteed to be ignored in the Democratic-led House but could get a vote if the GOP wins control of that chamber this fall.
Some Republican House candidates have called for reductions to long-term retirement spending to lower the debt.
Among them is Scott Baugh, who is challenging Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat, in a competitive district in Orange County that Democrats captured in 2018. In a recent interview at his Newport Beach office, Baugh said Congress must "reform entitlements" like Social Security and Medicare to tackle unfunded liabilities and balance the budget over the long term.
He lauded the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan of 2010 as "a very good effort," and added that on Social Security payouts, "we have to make adjustments as people live longer." He called for a bipartisan effort in which "one of the tools" in the toolbox can be an increase to the retirement age. (The 2010 framework went nowhere as Democrats rejected the retirement spending cuts and House Republicans opposed new taxes to balance the budget.)
After the interview, his campaign consultant Dave Gilliard emailed NBC News to make clear Baugh wasn't endorsing any benefit cuts for current retirees or workers.
"Scott does not support raising the age for Social Security benefits for anyone currently contributing to the system," he said.