Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 2 a.m.
U.S. Senate candidate Shelley Berkley today will deliver a vigorous defense to accusations she violated ethics rules, flooding Nevada airwaves with a new ad that portrays her as a crusader for protecting Medicare.
Berkley’s campaign will also launch a counterattack, pairing the defense ad with an second ad meant to dramatically amplify her existing message that her Republican opponent Dean Heller voted twice for a plan to “end Medicare.”
The two-pronged approach is aimed at diverting the campaign debate in the wake of the House Ethics Committee’s decision to begin a formal investigation into whether Berkley advocated policies to help her husband’s kidney care medical practice.
“How about the truth, Dean Heller,” Berkley’s first ad begins, before portraying the ethics complaint that helped spur the House investigation as a politically motivated attack.
“The complaint against Shelley Berkley was filed by the Republican Party,” the announcer continues.
The ad then argues Berkley fought to “stop cuts to Medicare coverage for hundreds of thousands of patients nationwide.”
At the heart of the ethics complaint against Berkley is that she lobbied to prevent cuts to the Medicare reimbursement rate for dialysis. Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a Las Vegas nephrologist whose practice derives some of its business from Medicare patients.
Berkley also joined with the rest of Nevada’s delegation to fight the closure of the kidney transplant center at University Medical Center, where her husband’s practice had a contract to provide kidney care. The transplant center is the only one in the Las Vegas Valley. Its closure would have forced patients to travel out of state for surgery.
Further complicating the issue is the fact Lehrner is involved in a renal doctors political action committee, which has donated to Berkley’s campaigns.
Berkley has always contended her motivation was protecting patient care for her constituents and not her family’s financial interests.
After presenting Berkley’s defense, the ad then pivots into an attack on Heller.
“And Dean Heller? Heller voted twice to end Medicare as we know it,” the announcer said. “You decide who’s for you.”
That segues directly into one of the key issues that Berkley’s campaign argues the election will be fought on: Medicare.
To that end, Berkley’s campaign will begin to amplify the Medicare attack against Heller on two fronts: television and the Internet.
In a second ad released today, Berkley accuses Heller of voting twice to “end Medicare” and of bragging that he’s proud of those votes.
“He even says he’s proud to be the only person to vote twice to end Medicare,” the announcer says.
Heller indeed voted twice for a budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan that would replace the existing Medicare program with a voucher program. The new program would apply to people younger than 55.
Democrats have long used the attack against Republicans who supported Ryan’s budget, despite the fact independent fact checkers have labeled the claim dubious. They contend the plan wouldn’t “end Medicare,” but concede that it would “end Medicare as we know it.”
Berkley’s campaign decided not to split those hairs.
“Dean Heller’s plan puts private insurance company bureaucrats in between seniors and their doctors while undermining guaranteed benefits by increasing premiums $6,000 a year on average,” a Berkley campaign spokesperson said. “Heller’s plan would be unrecognizable to the seniors who rely on the current Medicare system.”
Heller’s campaign has labeled a similar attack by the independent political organization Patriot Majority as an unfounded scare tactic.
“Shelley Berkley and Harry Reid just keep repeating the same ‘Lie of the Year,’ hoping they can keep misleading seniors all the way through November,” Heller’s spokeswoman Chandler Smith said of the Patriot Majority ad. “Shelley Berkley has always done whatever it takes to score political points, so her ‘Mediscare’ tactics really come as no surprise.”
The Berkley campaign’s decision to rely on the standard Medicare attack signals her insistence that the election will not be dominated by the ethics investigation. Instead, the campaign will continue to position Berkley as a “populist fighter” for middle-class issues.
“The message of this campaign doesn’t change,” a Democratic operative said.