Democratic national leaders touted Kathy Hochul’s victory in an election for an open congressional seat in a western New York district that traditionally has been safe GOP turf as a clear sign of public opposition to the Republican plan to privatize Medicare.
Analysts cautioned about reading too much into the election results from one congressional district, even one long controlled by Republicans. Still, they said the Democratic win should make Republicans nervous about voters’ reception to their Medicare proposal.
Don't count Rep. Paul Ryan among the nervous, the author of the budget plan involving Medicare, who defiantly predicted on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning that the Democrats would ramp up what he described as their "Mediscare" tactics. The Wisconsin Republican denounced the Democratic attacks as "demagoguery."
People will back the plan when they learn the facts, said Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Hochul, 52, the Erie County clerk who turned the campaign into a referendum on the Medicare plan, defeated Republican state legislator Jane Corwin Tuesday, 47 percent to 43 percent, with 97 percent of the vote counted, according to the Associated Press tally. Buffalo-area industrialist Jack Davis, who ran on the Tea Party ballot slot, received 9 percent.
“Republicans are going to have to hope” that the Medicare plan “will become just a small memory” before the 2012 election, said Bruce Altschuler, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Oswego.
The race was closely watched for its implications for national politics, including the 2012 presidential race. After polls showed Hochul gaining traction on the Medicare issue, national party groups and their independent allies helped finance a barrage of local television ads and automated telephone calls to voters.
Democrats called Hochul’s triumph a repudiation of the plan to overhaul Medicare, the government-run healthcare program for the elderly, that was passed by the Republican-controlled House last month.
Her “victory in a staunchly Republican district has shocked the political world and sent an unmistakable sign that the American people will not stand for the Republicans’ reckless and extreme agenda to end Medicare,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, while praising Hochul as a “great candidate,” said in a statement that the outcome also showed that “New Yorkers of all political persuasions do not want to destroy Medicare.”
Political analysts said that Democrats, who lost control of the House to Republicans in last November’s general elections, will seek to replicate Hochul’s populist attacks on Corwin in their 2012 campaigns. Hochul contended that her Republican opponent favored lower Medicare benefits to protect tax breaks for “millionaires and billionaires.”
“Democrats will try to use it as a blueprint in races all across the country,” while “Republicans have to learn to deal with it,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said the election is “definitely going to be interpreted as a pretty clear sign” that the Medicare issue “is hurting Republican candidates.”
Even before the votes were tallied, some Republican leaders discounted the election’s political significance because of Davis’s third-party candidacy.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who made a fundraising visit to the district for Corwin, said in Washington May 23 that the New York race can’t “be seen as a signal” of voter disapproval of the Republican Medicare plan because “it’s a three-way race.”
Gonzales said Davis’s candidacy forced Corwin, 47, “to fight a two-front war, and she did so poorly.” Still, he said in an e-mail, “It’s going to be hard for Republicans to spin their way out of the loss because it looks to me like the Medicare narrative of the race is already set in stone.”
The election in the 26th District, which runs from suburban Buffalo eastward to suburban Rochester, came just six weeks after the House approved a 2012 budget resolution that calls for privatizing Medicare for people who turn 65 in 2022.
Bill Reilich, the chairman of the Monroe County Republican Committee in Rochester, said House Republicans provided Democrats with a political opening by voting on the Medicare plan before giving voters a chance to “understand the problem” of the program’s potential insolvency.
“You have to explain the problem and the concerns and let people absorb that” before “you roll out the solution,” Reilich, a state lawmaker, said in a telephone interview. “Democrats did an effective job of scaring the voters with that issue.”
Ryan's Republican plan would provide a government subsidy to senior citizens to buy private health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that older Americans would pay a higher percentage of their income for health care under Ryan’s plan than they do in the current system.
Hochul focused her campaign on attacking the Ryan plan, which also would cut the top tax rate for wealthy Americans and corporations to 25 percent from 35 percent.
“We had the right issues on our side,” Hochul said in her victory speech last night. “We can balance our budget the right way and not on the backs of our seniors.”
Corwin, a member of the New York State Assembly, said during the campaign that she supported the Republican plan because “if we want Medicare to be around for current seniors and future generations, we need to make changes now.”
In her concession speech, she decried the “discourse of this election” campaign. “We cannot continue to play ‘gotcha’ politics and avoid confronting the major issues,” Corwin said. “I confronted the issues head-on.”
Republican presidential candidates and those considering running for their party’s 2012 nomination have treated Ryan’s plan gingerly.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a declared candidate, initially called the measure “right-wing social engineering.” Criticized by other Republicans for his comments, he retreated, saying he would have voted for the plan.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a potential White House contender, voted for the legislation. She later told Fox News that she “put an asterisk on my support” because of concern about “shifting the cost to senior citizens.”
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a declared candidate, and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who is exploring a bid, have said they plan to come out with their own Medicare plans, while offering kind words for Ryan’s.
“If you are a Republican, you got a big problem” because of the Medicare proposal, Altschuler said. The Democratic victory in the 26th District “says basically that the Ryan plan is an albatross around your neck.”
Abramowitz said “the interesting thing in the aftermath of the results tonight will be how many Republican senators decide” to “jump the ship along with Scott Brown” when Democrats, who control the Senate, force a vote on the Ryan plan as early as this week. “That will be a sign of what’s going on,” he said.
Brown, a Republican senator who won a special election in heavily Democratic Massachusetts early last year in a race that focused on President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul, announced May 23 that he would vote against Ryan’s plan. He is seeking a full term in next year’s election. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine also has said that she opposes the plan.
Republicans who previously represented the core of what is now New York’s 26th District included Jack Kemp, the former National Football League quarterback who was his party’s vice presidential nominee in 1996. Republican presidential nominee John McCain garnered 56 percent of the district’s presidential vote in 2008.
The House vacancy occurred when Republican Rep. Christopher Lee resigned Feb. 9 after a bare-chested photo of the married lawmaker surfaced on the Internet. Lee, who had been elected to a second term in November with about 74 percent of the vote, quit hours after the gossip website Gawker reported that he had e-mailed the picture to a woman he had met online.
Hochul’s win shrinks the Republican House majority to 240-193, with special elections yet to be held to fill seats vacated by Democrat Jane Harman in California and Republican Dean Heller in Nevada.
The 26th District election began attracting national attention when polls in late April showed Hochul gaining on Corwin by attacking her endorsement of the Medicare plan.
The race sparked more than $1.6 million in spending from the House’s Republican and Democratic fundraising committees, as well as by outside entities. Among those supporting Corwin were the American Crossroads group founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Action Network, which all supported Corwin.
“What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010,” American Crossroads President Steven Law said in a statement. “It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year.”
Debate about whether Medicare played a bigger role in the outcome than competition from a third-party candidate is “mostly a partisan Rorschach test,” Law said.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, said the election “has far-reaching consequences beyond New York.” The Florida congresswoman said the vote “demonstrates that Republican and independent voters, along with Democrats, will reject extreme policies like ending Medicare.”
Hochul benefited from spending by labor unions and the House Majority PAC, recently formed by Democratic operatives to counter the Republican-leaning groups that helped spur their party’s gains in the 2010 elections.
“Even on a presidential vote, I’ve never remembered so many computer-generated calls,” said Jim Kunkel, 72, a retired Eastman Kodak Co. engineer who lives in Greece, N.Y. “I’ve been getting so many surveys, I practice hanging them up the minute I know they are a computer voice.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, traveled to the district on Corwin’s behalf. On the campaign’s final day, Hochul was joined by New York Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, a former Rochester mayor, to stump with her in Greece, a predominantly Republican suburb.
Davis, the third-party candidate, was hard to categorize politically. A lifelong Republican, he switched parties to unsuccessfully seek the House seat as a Democrat in 2004, 2006 and 2008. After returning to the Republican Party and losing its primary for the special election nomination, he secured the Tea Party ballot slot. Many Tea Party activists disowned him.
While swaths of the district have been represented by Republicans for at least a century, parts have been represented by Democrats, including Louise Slaughter from 1987 to 1993 and John LaFalce from 1983 to 2003. Political boundaries change every 10 years due to results of the U.S. Census.
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