Democrats, peddling fear about Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms, swiped a ruby-red House seat from Republicans on Tuesday.
Republican Jane Corwin, a state legislator, was topped by Democrat Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, in New York’s 26th congressional district, which straddles the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Hochul led by four points, 47 percent to 43 percent. Jack Davis, a millionaire protectionist who ran on the “Tea Party” line, captured approximately 9 percent of the vote.
“We had the issues on our side,” Hochul told supporters following Corwin’s concession. The crowd assembled in a local union hall agreed, chanting “Medicare! Medicare!” as they cheered on the surprise victory.
The late-spring special election was called after then-congressman Chris Lee, a Republican, resigned in February. Lee, who is married, decided to leave office after a gossip website published shirtless pictures he sent to a potential paramour.
National GOP and conservative groups scurried to the district over the past weekend, hoping to salvage Corwin’s chances in the final hours. The National Republican Congressional Committee poured over $400,000 into the race; American Crossroads, a group with ties to Karl Rove, contributed over $700,000 toward the cause.
But it was not to be. The district was dotted with signs that read: “Save Medicare — Vote Hochul.” Corwin, a respected assemblywoman, struggled to swat back at Hochul’s focused, one-note message against the Ryan plan.
Corwin was also dogged by what many GOP operatives saw as an inexperienced campaign team. At one point, Corwin’s legislative chief of staff became a key issue in the race after he confronted Davis, a 78-year-old former Marine, with a handheld video camera.
Republican reaction to the upset was swift. The GOP “must do [a] better job explaining entitlements,” warned former New York congressman Rick Lazio on Twitter. Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, also noted the challenges ahead. “What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010,” he said. “It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game.”
Others, such as Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Rep. Peter Sessions of Texas, the NRCC chairman, spun a more optimistic response, urging analysts to not view the race as an indicator for 2012.
“To predict the future based on the results of this unusual race is naive and risky,” Sessions said in a statement. “History shows one important fact: The results of competitive special elections from Hawaii to New York are poor indicators of broader trends or future general election outcomes.”
Democrats, of course, were jubilant. “I want to extend my congratulations to congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul for her victory in New York’s 26th Congressional District,” wrote President Obama in a spike-the-ball press release. “Kathy has shown through her victory and throughout her career that she will fight for the families and businesses in western New York.” Vice President Biden, for his part, called Hochul to welcome her to Washington.
“We should not jump to big conclusions, though I am probably too late in saying so,” cautions David Wasserman, an elections analyst at the Cook Political Report. “This is not a mandate for Democrats. It’s way too early to start talking about what this means for 2012.”
The Jack Davis factor, Wasserman adds, skews the results. “Find me another race next year where a 78-year old Tea Party protectionist spends millions as an independent. Then you can feel free to project the results of this election onto that race.”
Mary Matalin, a longtime GOP strategist, agrees. “Obviously the fake Tea Party candidate took a chunk out of Corwin and botched the trajectory, but to the extent the Medicare issue had an impact, it was a truncated and distorted debate and neither illustrative nor predictive of a more rational and informed debate,” she says. “Republicans cannot go wobbly on Medicare and entitlement reform. ‘Medi-scare’ might possibly, in isolated instances, be a short-term advantage, but mid- and long-term, a political and policy disaster.”
The western New York region has long been represented by high-profile Republicans, such as Jack Kemp and William Miller, who both served as GOP vice-presidential nominees. About 25 percent of the eligible voters showed up at the polls, a low overall figure but higher than seen in many special House elections.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.