Kathy Hochul was elected to a vacant U.S. House seat in western New York, the Associated Press said, following a campaign that became a referendum on a Republican plan to privatize Medicare.
With 84 percent of the vote counted in the special election, the AP tally showed Hochul with 48 percent to 42 percent for Republican Jane Corwin and 8 percent for Buffalo- area industrialist Jack Davis, running on the Tea Party ballot line.
The race was closely watched for its implications on national politics, including the 2012 presidential campaign. The campaign provided the first electoral test on the Medicare issue and, in a sign of its potential importance, national party groups and their independent allies helped finance a barrage of local television ads and automated telephone calls to households.
Hochul's triumph in a district long dominated by Republicans will be touted by Democrats as a repudiation of the plan passed by the Republican-controlled House to overhaul Medicare, the government-run health-care program for the elderly.
Political analysts said that Democrats, who lost control of the House to Republicans in last November's general elections, will seek to replicate in 2012 campaigns Hochul's populist attacks on Corwin as favoring 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.
A 'Clear Sign'
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 yesterday that the New York race can't "be seen as a signal" of voter disapproval of the Republican Medicare plan. "The best signal you can take is the 63 seats that we picked up" in last November's election, he told reporters.
Today's election in the 26th District, which runs from suburban Buffalo to suburban Rochester, came just six weeks after the House approved a 2012 budget resolution that calls for privatizing Medicare for recipients who turn 65 in 2022.
Opening for Democrats
Bill Reilich, who chairs the Monroe County Republican Committee in Rochester, said House Republicans gave Democrats 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."
The plan, drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would provide a government subsidy to the future Medicare recipients to purchase private health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that elderly Americans would pay a higher percentage of their income under Ryan's plan than in the current system.
Hochul, the clerk of Erie County, 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.
Corwin, a member of the New York State Assembly, said 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."
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.
Representative 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 Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a declared candidate, and former Governor 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.
'A Big Problem'
"If you are a Republican, you got a big problem" because of the Medicare proposal, Bruce Altschuler, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Oswego, said before the results were known in the House race. The outcome "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."
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 health-care overhaul, announced yesterday that he would vote against Ryan's plan. He is seeking a full term in next year's election.
Republicans who previously represented the core of what is now the 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 Representative 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.
The special election began attracting national attention when polls in late April showed Hochul gaining traction by attacking Corwin on Medicare.
The race sparked more than $1.6 million in spending from the House's Republican and Democratic fundraising committees, as well as outside entities that included 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.
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 Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, a former Rochester mayor, to stump with her in Greece, a predominantly Republican suburb.
While swaths of the currently configured district have been represented by Republicans for at least a century, parts had been represented by Democrats, including Louise Slaughter from 1987 to 1993 and John LaFalce from 1983 to 2003, as political boundaries change every 10 years due to results of the U.S. Census.
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