* Race is too close to call in heavily Republican district
* Spending, disputed Tea Party candidate in spotlight
By Neale Gulley
BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) - Once predicted to be a
Republican landslide, next week's special congressional
election in upstate New York has turned into a tight three-way
battle that has shined a spotlight on the national debate over
spending and Medicare.
The election Tuesday to replace disgraced Republican
Chris Lee, who resigned in February after his shirtless photo
appeared on the Internet, features a struggling Republican, a
disputed Tea Party candidate and an upset-minded Democrat.
Republican Jane Corwin was expected to cruise to victory in
the conservative district where Republicans hold an eight-point
voter registration edge and Republican John McCain easily beat
Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 White House race.
But Corwin has been under heavy attack from Democrat Kathy
Hochul for backing a divisive budget plan put forth by
Republicans in the House of Representatives, and has seen
self-described Tea Party candidate Joe Davis siphon away
Political handicappers now say the race is too close to
call. National parties and outside groups have poured money
into the district, hoping to claim an early win in the battle
over cuts in spending and the Medicare health program for
seniors first proposed by House Republican Paul Ryan.
But one local political analyst said third-party candidate
Davis was playing an even bigger role in the tight campaign.
"The national dialogue I've heard, which I think is wrong,
is that the race is close because it's a referendum on the
national budget. The only reason that it's in play is because
Jack Davis is in the race," said Joshua Dyck, a political
scientist at the University of Buffalo.
While special elections usually feature low voter turnout,
making projections of the electorate difficult, a recent poll
suggests 24 percent of likely voters -- many of them would-be
Corwin supporters -- now support Davis.
The May 9 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling showed
Davis drawing the most votes from Corwin, helping Hochul earn
support from 35 percent of likely voters, to Corwin's 31
"This is not an election about message as much as it's
about getting your supporters off the couch to vote on a
Tuesday in May when they're not used to voting," Dyck said.
'TEA PARTY' BRAWL
Davis, a millionaire business owner, is a self-described
Tea Party candidate and fiscal conservative. He has been
condemned by the national Tea Party movement for supporting
Obama and running three prior campaigns as a Democrat.
"He has no claim to the Tea Party Mantle," Tea Party
Express co-founder Sal Russo said, citing in part Davis' past
support for cap and trade legislation to limit greenhouse gas
At a rally last week, however, Davis said he voted for
Republicans Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater for president in
the past. Davis failed to win Republican backing in the race
before running as a Tea Party candidate.
"Jane Corwin has outsourced her campaign to the lobbyists
and Washington insiders that have outsourced our jobs," the
Davis campaign said. "The Tea Party Express is financed by
these special interests."
The House Democratic campaign committee plans to spend
$250,000 on ads to support Hochul, and a new independent group
backing House Democrats, the House Majority PAC, has launched
ads highlighting Corwin's support for Ryan's plan to cut
billions from Medicare.
Hochul, who opposes Ryan's plan, has her own campaign ads
attacking Corwin for backing Ryan's proposal. Democrats hope
the issue will resonate into the 2012 congressional elections
and help their drive to retake control of the House.
Republicans have fought back, with an independent
Republican-aligned group and the House Republican campaign
committee both putting money into the race. House Speaker John
Boehner, a Republican, headlined a fundraiser for Corwin.
The seat was left vacant when married Republican
Representative Chris Lee resigned on Feb. 9 after shirtless
photos he had sent to a woman he met on Craigslist surfaced on
Only two Democrats have represented the heavily Republican
Congressional District 26, which covers a big area of Western
New York near Buffalo, since World War Two. Davis narrowly lost
a 2006 bid for the seat as a Democrat to former Republican
Representative Tom Reynolds, giving him name recognition that
Dyck said has contributed to his support.
Davis, the founder of a company that manufactures
components for solar panels and television screens, has said he
will invest $3 million of his own money in the race.
(Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Todd Eastham)
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