The mom ad worked.
A year ago, when Republican Mark Amodei was running in a special election to fill Northern Nevada's congressional seat, his Democratic opponent Kate Marshall attacked him on Medicare.
"Mark Amodei thinks a plan to end Medicare is 'excellent,' " one Marshall TV ad said.
Amodei had used the word "excellent" to describe a budget by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the conservative Republican from Wisconsin who's now GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's running mate.
Ryan's plan at the time would have changed Medicare for people under the age of 55 by shifting it to an insurance premium-support plan where retirees would get government money to buy private health care policies.
The GOP argues that giving future seniors that option is the only way to keep Medicare from going bankrupt by 2024.
Marshall, the state treasurer, pounced on Amodei for seeming to support Ryan's plan.
In response, the Amodei campaign pulled out a secret weapon: his 79-year-old mother, Joy.
She starred in commercials for Amodei to defend her son. In one, she reacts with shock after watching Marshall's TV ad attacking her son for wanting to end Medicare.
"That's not true!" Joy Amodei says in the response ad as she sits on the couch in front of the TV.
The ad narrator intones, "Well said, Mrs. Amodei. Kate Marshall is still lying about your son."
The ad then shows Amodei sitting around a table with senior citizens.
"Mark Amodei will protect Medicare benefits for seniors, now and in the future," the ad says. "Kate Marshall supports $500 billion in cuts to today's Medicare recipients."
The 30-second Amodei spot ends with him sitting on the couch, his arm around his mother.
"I'm Mark Amodei and I approved this message," he says.
"Me too," his mother adds.
"Thanks, mom," Amodei says, smiling.
As expected, Amodei easily won the Sept. 13 election in a blowout over Marshall, 58 percent to 36 percent, in the GOP-leaning 2nd Congressional District, which covered most of Nevada.
More importantly for Republicans, polls showed that Amodei won on the Medicare issue, turning it around in his favor after starting a dozen percentage points behind Marshall on the matter.
A poll of likely voters taken Aug. 4, 2011, asked who would "better protect seniors on Medicare?" Marshall won, 38.5 percent to 26.3 percent. After Amodei aired his first mom ad, he began to close the gap. An Aug. 16 poll on Medicare had him losing to Marshall, 31.5 percent to 34.5 percent. Then mom turned it around for him.
By Aug. 30, a poll showed he was beating Marshall on Medicare protection, 40.8 percent to 33.3 percent.
Rob Stutzman, the GOP operative who made the ad, said Amodei won the argument on Medicare by going on the offense instead of letting his Democratic opponent beat him up.
"In a real-life campaign laboratory, we saw this work: We won on Medicare," Stutzman said Friday in an interview. "If nothing else, there's evidence we can move numbers our way on this issue."
■ ■ ■
As Medicare takes center stage with Romney picking Ryan for the GOP ticket, the Amodei example is proving instructive for Republicans - from the presidential race to the close House battles to the Senate contest between U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
The National Republican Campaign Committee thought so much of Amodei's response to Medicare attacks that last week it put out a 10-minute video laying out how other Republicans could use the same strategy. Mike Shields, the group's political director, narrates the video, entitled, "How We Won Seniors."
"We always start off at a deficit on the issue of Medicare with Democrats," Shields says. "Republicans still need to talk about Medicare. We need to feel positive about how we go about talking about preserving Medicare."
Although the GOP thinks it has found a winning formula, a Democratic operative scoffed at the Amodei example, saying it can't be replicated in other general election races in Nevada and nationwide.
For starters, the Amodei race was a special election, which attracts a small number of partisan voters - in this case mostly Republican, the operative said. The GOP had a 30,000 registered voter advantage over Democrats in the district, or about eight percentage points. So most voters were inclined to side with Amodei in the end.
Also, the special election turnout was only 33 percent, less than half of regular election turnouts. Of the votes cast in the race, 54 percent were Republican and 33 percent were Democratic, according to the operative.
Democrats still think they can win the Medicare argument - and big - mostly because the program is universally popular and any attempt to change it could run into fearful voters.
"The fact that Republicans have been reduced to drawing comparisons between Mark Amodei, who said he wouldn't support the Ryan budget plan, to Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and Dean Heller who wrote, endorsed and voted for the plan twice respectively shows a level of desperation around the Medicare issue that would be laughable if it wasn't so bizarre," said Zac Petkanas, a top Democratic strategist in Nevada.
"Making any comparison between a special election in a highly Republican district to a presidential election year is as absurd as comparing cotton candy to a pork chop," he added. "All this shows is that Republicans are very, very concerned that their plan to essentially end Medicare is extremely damaging and undermining their chances up and down the ballot."
■ ■ ■
The Democrats may be right, but Republicans are taking a page from the Amodei playbook anyway.
Last Tuesday, Ryan didn't mention Medicare when he campaigned in Las Vegas. Later in the week, however, he began to talk about his 78-year-old mother, a Medicare recipient, and how she and other seniors would be protected. Ryan visited a retirement community in Florida over the weekend to confront the issue, too.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, stopped in Las Vegas on Thursday to promote Heller and to defend the GOP Medicare plan. He invoked his 83-year-old mother, making the issue personal.
"I will never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt her," Rubio said.
And Rubio - like Romney, Ryan and Heller - counterpunched, too. The Republicans are criticizing President Barack Obama and Democrats for passing his health care law that reduced Medicare spending by more than $700 billion. The money comes from savings over 10 years by cutting fraud and reducing payments to doctors and other health care professionals. Ryan's proposed budget includes similar Medicare savings.
Rubio said Obama has "stolen" $700 billion from Medicare to pay for his health care plan.
Heller is very vulnerable if the GOP comeback on Medicare doesn't work.
He voted twice for the Ryan budget. Berkley has made Medicare her main attack against her GOP opponent. So far, he's battled back by noting in a TV ad that the Democratic charge the GOP plan would "end Medicare" was labeled the "lie of the year" by PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact check organization.
A poll released Friday shows Berkley far ahead of Heller on Medicare with less than three months to go before Election Day. The survey showed Berkley beating Heller on the Medicare issue 45 percent to 23 percent.
The telephone poll of 613 likely voters statewide was conducted Aug. 13 to 15. It was sponsored by the independent expenditure arm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Heller campaign wouldn't say whether he will use his elderly mother, Janet, in Medicare ads. On the campaign trail, he has often mentioned his father, a veteran who's nearly 79 years old. He said Jack Heller is here today thanks to the good medical care he's received from VA hospitals, including multiple surgeries.
Medicare has surely helped Janet Heller, too.
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.