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KELLY'S BIG FLIP-FLOP

Republican Jesse Kelly, who is battling Democrat Ron Barber in the June 12 special election to complete Gabrielle Giffords' Congressional District 8 term, has made a startling political transformation.

For his entire political career (which is about three years old), Kelly has insisted that Social Security and Medicare needed to be privatized. In multiple interviews, he said that both programs were examples of government failures.

But last week, Kelly's new position emerged on his webpage: "I support preserving, protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare. I do not support privatizing, eliminating or phasing out these programs in any way."

That's a dramatic change—and weirdly enough, Kelly and his supporters refuse to acknowledge that anything has changed.

"What we said in 2010, in 2009, in 2011 and now in 2012 is that we have to protect the benefits that seniors have earned," Kelly said at a press conference last week. "That's what we've said then; it's what we're saying now; it's what we will always say, because these are not welfare programs. These are programs people have paid into all their lives, and we will honor our commitments."

Pressed by reporters from Arizona Public Media and the Arizona Daily Star to explain his new position, Kelly said he was out of time and could answer no more questions.

Kelly's new role as a protector of Medicare and Social Security came, coincidentally enough, as Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, arrived in Tucson last week.

While no formal changes have been announced by the Kelly campaign, we're hearing that John Ellinwood, who has been Kelly's spokesman and one of his chief strategists, has been neutered by NRCC bigwigs. As we understand it, Ellinwood has been told that he's not to make any statements without the approval of Scarpinato, a former Arizona Daily Star reporter.

We gave Ellinwood a call last week to find out if this was the case, but we haven't yet heard back from him.

Reforming Kelly's image is a somewhat awkward task for Scarpinato, given that two years ago, he was working as a spokesman for former state lawmaker Jonathan Paton's 2010 congressional campaign. You may recall that Paton lost to Kelly, despite having more experience on the campaign trail and outspending him.

It was in the course of that campaign that Scarpinato first got to know Jesse Kelly—and he didn't seem all that impressed. He told the Tucson Weekly that the Kelly campaign "has had about as much accuracy and credibility on things as Countdown With Keith Olbermann." And he told the Arizona Capitol Times that Paton had lost ground to Kelly in the polls "because no one could have ever imagined that Jesse Kelly would run one of the most negative, slanderous campaigns that we've seen in Arizona probably in decades."

But now that he's been given the task of running a negative campaign on Kelly's behalf, Scarpinato says it's all "water under the bridge."

"Since that race, I've become friends with Jesse and gotten to know him, and the past is the past," Scarpinato says.

Scarpinato's first task for his new pal appears to have been finding a way to convince people that Kelly didn't really mean it when he said he'd "love to privatize" Social Security and get seniors "off the public dole" of Medicare.

Scarpinato correctly points out that Kelly has always said that current recipients should continue to receive their benefits. But Scarpinato sidestepped questions about how Kelly's new opposition to "phasing out" the programs fits with his earlier insistence that it was necessary to privatize both programs for future retirees.

Instead, he encouraged The Skinny to call Ellinwood, who declined to return our calls. Maybe Ellinwood didn't have Scarpinato's permission to respond.


AVALANCHE OF DOLLARS

So why is Jesse Kelly suddenly embracing the socialism of Social Security and Medicare? It's because in the past, he's adopted unpopular positions with seniors and a good chunk of the rest of the population—namely, that Social Security and Medicare are bad programs that should be eliminated over time.

So Kelly now needs to moderate himself—because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and another Democratic super PAC, the House Majority PAC, are combining to spend something in the neighborhood of $800,000 to amplify what Kelly has told the press in the past.

Meanwhile, with early voting in the CD 8 special election set to begin on Thursday, May 17, the National Republican Campaign Committee is planning on spending at least $300,000 on TV spots.

The first one, which debuted last week, hits Ron Barber on a standard GOP talking point: Obamacare is bad.

The NRCC ad makes two claims that have been repeatedly rated "false" by PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political ad fact-checker.

The first false claim is that Democrats have cut Medicare by $500 billion. The second is that a board of "unelected bureaucrats" is now in charge of determining Medicare benefits.

The $500 billion cut claim was the big GOP attack line of 2010, and it will undoubtedly continue this year.

PolitiFact explains: "There's a small bit of truth here. The Affordable Care Act does reduce Medicare spending by $500 billion over the next 10 years. But here's the catch: Those dollars aren't taken out of the current budget; they are not actual cuts, and nowhere does the bill actually eliminate any current benefits.

"The $500 billion is all in future spending reductions and come through the law's attempts to slow projected growth, not cut spending."

We don't have space to dig into the details—you can find more on The Range, our online daily dispatch—but we'll point out that Republicans have actually embraced the same reductions in future spending as part of the budget proposal put forth by Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato acknowledges that Republicans have also embraced the $500 billion in future spending reductions, but says the GOP plan is "very different."

"The Ryan budget finds long-term savings to extend the life of Medicare, and the Obamacare plan actually cuts Medicare to fund a new entitlement program," Scarpinato says.

So how does the Ryan plan extend the life of Medicare? It works to privatize it by moving seniors to a voucher system under which they could purchase their own insurance instead of being covered by traditional Medicare. Critics estimate that seniors will end up paying more out of pocket for their health-care needs, because the vouchers won't keep pace with rising health-care costs.

Asked about the future of Medicare under the Ryan plan, Scarpinato said he didn't understand the plan well enough to comment on it.

Barber opposes the Ryan proposal, saying that it will weaken Medicare in the long term, because healthier and wealthier seniors will move away from Medicare, leaving a greater burden on the government to care for the sick and the poor.

Kelly declined to take a stand on the latest version of the Ryan proposal when the Weekly asked him about it earlier this year, but his new position opposing privatization "in any way" suggests that Kelly does not support it. If that's the case—and it's hard to say exactly what Kelly believes, because he refuses to answer questions—then it's another flip-flop for him, because in 2010, he was a supporter of Ryan's plan.


KELLY DEBATES BARBER

Arizona Public Media will present a televised debate between Ron Barber, Jesse Kelly and Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis on Wednesday, May 16. You can watch it from 6 to 7 p.m. on KUAT Channel 6, or online at azpm.org.

More by Jim Nintzel

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