Social Security has become a top issue in the race for Michigan's First Congressional District. It's the seat now held by Democrat Bart Stupak, who announced his retirement last spring.
More than a third those living in the district is older than 50, and Democrats are hoping the issue will help them hold onto the seat.
When Dr. Dan Benishek, a Republican, was running in the primary he had plenty of criticism for programs like social security and Medicare.
Here he is in July in an interview with Interlochen Public Radio:
"In my opinion, all the social programs do not belong in government. They belong in the private sector. Americans will take care of Americans who are in need. We take care of people in our community. The Salvation Army takes care of people privately. Churches do this. My wife works at St. Vinnies. We contribute. We help people in our community. But the government doesn't do it very well, giving people things. It makes people dependent. There's no incentive for them to change their position in life."
The day Benishek won the G.O.P. nomination, Democrat Gary McDowell started hammering his position on Social Security. McDowell scheduled campaign events with seniors to talk about the issue. He vowed to protect social security, and oppose any effort to privatize it.
He accused Benishek of being ready to hand off social security funds to Wall Street bankers:
"We talk about privatizing social security. Those same people who made those risky loans and irresponsible decisions would have your social security money to play with it. We have to make sure it's a safe and secure future so you have the peace of mind when you retire that your money is safe and secure," he says.
Recently, Benishek seemed to soften his position. He issued a statement calling for, "The preservation of social security," and promising no reduction, freezes, or changes in the benefits provided existing retirees. He says there should be a guarantee that whatever you pay in, you get back.
"This is a promise we've made to our retirees over age 62 by our government. We have to honor that 100 percent, no ifs ands or buts. Period. Any other suggestion by my opponents is simply a distortion game typical of career politicians, and a shameful tactic to scare northern Michigan seniors," Benishek says.
Benishek says he would consider a plan to allow people under age 62 to have an option to put part of their social security payments into private accounts.
Independent Candidate Takes Similar Approach
Another candidate courting conservative votes in Michigan's 1st Congressional seat has taken the same position. Glenn Wilson is running as an independent, and says he'd never endanger social security payments to seniors.
"There's a commitment that was made to these seniors that can't be broken just like an agreement. It's a contract. They've paid into it their whole life, and that will not be touched," Wilson says.
But Wilson admits he's also looking at private savings options for people under 50 years old.
But seniors like George Colburn are worried about retirement benefits. Colburn thinks it's a problem for all generations.
"I think social security is already threatened because of the insolvency of the government," he says. "I worry about my children and their children having social security. It is a sort of minimum safety net and I would hate to see it tampered with."
About 35 percent of voters in the 1st Congressional District are older than 50.
EPIC-MRA polster Bernie Porn says they're concerns weigh more heavily on the outcome, especially this year.
"This is a lower turnout election than the presidential election, where younger voters had a much bigger impact. Senior citizens always vote, and because they always vote they're going to be a greater percentage of those participating in this election," Porn says.
There are three lesser-known candidates running in the first congressional district race.
Keith Shelton, the Libertarian candidate, agrees with Benishek and Wilson that major changes must be made to the social security system.
Both Green Party Candidate Ellis Boal, and U.S. Taxpayers Candidate Patrick Lambert say the social security system should be maintained much the same way it is today.