BUFFALO, N.Y. — A special congressional election in upstate New York may prove a preview to next year's U.S. national elections with older voters in the Republican stronghold ready to punish those who would tamper with Medicare.
The Tuesday election to replace Chris Lee, a married Republican congressman who was caught sending a shirtless image of himself to a woman he met online, is expected to hinge on concerns about the federal health program for the elderly.
A poll released on Saturday by Siena College showed that Medicare was the top issue in congressional District 26, which covers a big area of western New York state near Buffalo.
Only two Democrats have represented the district since World War Two.
But the survey showed Democrat Kathy Hochul leading with 42 percent to Republican Jane Corwin's 38 percent. Jack Davis, a self-described candidate of the conservative Tea Party movement, had 12 percent.
Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan publication that tracks congressional races, said Democrats were benefiting from unease about Republicans' budget-cutting proposals that would privatize Medicare.
"I expect the Democrat to win with less than 50 percent of the vote," Gonzales said, suggesting such a victory would "be a blueprint for Democratic campaigns" nationwide in 2012.
Republicans hold an 8 percentage point voter registration edge in the district, where Republican John McCain won far more support than Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 White House race.
Hochul has challenged Corwin for backing a budget plan put forward by House Republicans that includes the Medicare overhaul, and Davis has siphoned off some conservative support.
An estimated 59 percent of likely voters in the New York special election are 55 or older, making concerns about Medicare especially salient there.
House Republican Leader Eric Cantor sought on Monday to avoid having the vote seen as a referendum on Medicare.
"This race is about the fact that it's a three-way race," Cantor told reporters on Capitol Hill. "I do not think it can be seen as a signal as to the role of the budget reforms that we have proposed, including Medicare."
Regardless who wins on Tuesday, Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives, which they gained in the 2010 elections. But the balance of power could be up for grabs with the November 2012 presidential and congressional vote. (Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Donna Smith in Washington; Writing by Mark Egan; Editing by Laura MacInnis)
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