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Will Seniors Leave Republicans Out To Dry In 2014?


Some of the Republican Party's most reliable support has come from voters over the age of 65. But a recent survey suggests this could be changing.

NPR's Ina Jaffe went to the Palm Springs to look at a congressional race where we might be seeing this change play out.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: At the weekly street market in Palm Desert, shoppers tend to be from Oregon or Canada or someplace that's cold and gloomy this time of year. The vendors, on the other hand, tend to be locals. Like 60-year-old Greg Thiesen, who sells make-up and shaving mirrors. He lives and votes here in Palm Desert and he's a lifelong Republican. But is he gloating over the plunge in President Obama's approval in California? No. He's talking about the failings of his own party.

GREG FISON: I'm so disgusted with the Republicans right now and their little ploys and tactics and their stalling and not doing anything that I may just vote Democrat right down the line to get them out of office, I'm so disgusted with them.

JAFFE: Fison is still frustrated by the government shutdown and the lack of a budget and all those filibusters in the Senate. Also important in this increasingly Latino district is the lack of action on immigration reform. These were the kinds of issues that cost Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack her seat in Congress last year. Even though Democrats here have a registration advantage of less than one-half of 1 percent, political newcomer and emergency room physician Raul Ruiz beat her by six points.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL RUIZ: Good afternoon and welcome.

JAFFE: Ruiz was recently at the senior center in Palm Springs. He was promoting a bill he's introduced to protect seniors from healthcare scams.

RUIZ: If you or anyone you know has questions regarding fraud, please reach out to my office. As always, my door is open.

JAFFE: He knows how important older voters were to his recent victory and his hopes for the next one, and he wants seniors to know he's got their back.

RUIZ: And we can start serving and protecting our seniors from healthcare fraud right here, right now, right away.

JAFFE: When Ruiz was elected last year, older voters gave Republicans nationwide a 12 percent advantage in Congressional races. That was actually down from the 21 point advantage the GOP had in the previous election, according to Democratic polling organization Democracy Corps. Senior associate Erica Seifert says their latest poll shows that trend continuing in dramatic fashion, especially in highly competitive districts held by Republicans.

ERICA SEIFERT: In these vulnerable Republican districts, Democrats and Republicans are now tied among seniors.

JAFFE: And seniors also used to be evenly divided in competitive districts represented by Democrats, but Seifert says she now sees these Democrats leading among older voters.

SEIFERT: And that's a pretty incredible shift that we're seeing in these districts.

JAFFE: In Congress, Ruiz votes like someone who's well aware not only of the seniors in his district, but also the Republicans. Despite his avowed support for the Affordable Care Act, he joined more than three dozen other Democrats from competitive districts who broke with their party and voted for a Republican measure the critics say would've gutted the healthcare law.

The Upton bill, as it's known, would permit insurance companies to offer policies considered substandard by Obamacare. Ruiz says he just wanted to help out constituents...

RUIZ: Who do not qualify for subsidies and cannot afford some of the premiums that are their alternatives. So this is a way for me to protect some of these individuals and give them a better alternative.

JAFFE: The congressman spoke in the senior center's small meeting room. The big one across the hall was already booked.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here we go. N-41, N-41.

JAFFE: One player in the crowded room was 75-year-old Julie Bain. She's a lifelong Republican, but lately she'd rather think about bingo than politicians.

JULIE BAIN: I don't feel like they're for the people. I think all they're doing is arguing between themselves.

JAFFE: Does that make you feel differently about your own party?

BAIN: Yes.

JAFFE: And not in a good way. She says if she's still this disgusted on Election Day next year, she may be willing to gamble on something or someone new.


JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I-30. I-30. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
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