For decades, the late congressman Jack Kemp was western New York’s conservative champion. A tough supply-sider and former Buffalo Bills quarterback, Kemp personified the region’s grit.
Since Kemp left office, the area’s blue-collar factory towns and sprawling farms, which constitute much of New York’s 26th congressional district, have remained solid Republican territory: Sen. John McCain won here, as did George W. Bush.
Until this week, NY-26 was widely expected to remain safely in GOP hands. Republicans enjoy a 26,000-voter registration edge, and the district’s residents are more socially conservative than those in other parts of the state.
With the click of a BlackBerry, things fell apart.
In February, Rep. Chris Lee, the district’s clean-cut GOP congressman, became an Internet sensation. Gawker, a New York–based gossip website, published shirtless pictures of Lee, his muscles flexed.
The snapshots were provided to Gawker by a woman who had placed a personal ad on Craiglist.com. In e-mail exchanges with the woman, Lee, who is married and 47 years old, reportedly described himself as a divorced 39-year-old lobbyist.
As the blog post drew giggles, Lee’s staff initially claimed that the congressman’s e-mail had been hacked. When more unseemly details emerged, the libidinous backbencher ’fessed up, and within hours resigned.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo promptly called for a special election. Voters will head to the polls next Tuesday.
Republican Jane Corwin, a state legislator, faces stiff competition from Democrat Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk. Jack Davis, a 78-year-old former Democrat, is running on the “Tea Party” line. Ian Murphy, a satirical blogger, has the Green-party nod.
In other words, it’s a mess. Davis, a wealthy industrialist and fiery former Marine, is a perennial congressional candidate. Yet after stumbling in past bids, he has suddenly mounted a strong third-party challenge. His protectionist views and anti-establishment rhetoric have connected with a slice of the electorate, much of which has struggled through the recession.
Corwin also finds herself in the middle of a proxy war between national Republicans and Democrats over Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. Corwin backs Ryan’s effort; Hochul has tethered her hopes to demonizing Ryan’s Medicare reforms, which she claims would harm seniors.
Democrats, sensing disarray in a deep-red district, would love to pick up the seat, mere weeks after Ryan and his House GOP colleagues promoted the budget at town-hall meetings. Republicans, fearful of that spin, are performing triage, sending organizers and volunteers to Corwin headquarters.
“Democrats are going to try to make the 2012 House elections a referendum on ‘Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare,’ which all but a small handful of Republicans voted for,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “NY-26 has too many complicating factors for this to fairly be considered a referendum on Ryan, but inevitably that is how many will interpret the election.”
Corwin acknowledges that Medicare has become the central debate in the race, even as she works to shift the focus to jobs and the deficit. “The tough part is that Democrats in Washington are sending their message that the Ryan plan is going to end Medicare,” she laments in an interview with National Review Online. “We all know that is simply not the case.”
In the final days, the race has tightened. A Siena College poll late last month showed Corwin leading the field with only 36 percent of the vote. Hochul drew 31 percent in the survey; Davis galloped to 23 percent. But Corwin remains far from a safe bet. A recent survey conducted by Public Policy Polling shows Hochul leading with 35 percent, Corwin with 31 percent, and Davis within nine points at 24 percent.