A special election tomorrow in western New York for a U.S. House seat opened up by a scandal has turned into the first electoral test of the Republican plan to privatize Medicare.
Democrat Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, has tagged her Republican opponent, state lawmaker Jane Corwin, as a candidate of “special interests” who would short-change future Medicare recipients to protect tax breaks for “millionaires and billionaires” and big companies. Corwin has fought back, saying in a debate last week that Hochul’s stance is “another scare tactic on the part of a career politician.”
The candidacy of Buffalo-area industrialist Jack Davis, running on the Tea Party ballot slot, has added an unpredictable element to the campaign. Polls show a tight race for the seat long held by Republicans, including the late Jack Kemp, the party’s 1996 vice presidential nominee.
A Hochul victory would be “a major upheaval,” sending “a real message to the Republicans in Congress that the Medicare proposal is deadly,” Len Lenihan, the Erie County Democratic chairman, said in an interview.
The House’s two top Republicans, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, visited the district to help Corwin raise money. National party groups and their allies have spent more than $1.6 million to saturate local television with ads.
The special election was forced by the Feb. 9 resignation of Representative Christopher Lee, who last November won a second term with more than 70 percent of the vote. Lee, 47, resigned after Gawker reported that the married lawmaker had e- mailed a bare-chested picture of himself to a woman he had met through the Craigslist website.
The campaign to replace him drew little national attention until Hochul, 52, spotlighted Corwin’s endorsement of the Republican plan to reduce government debt by privatizing Medicare for people who turn 65 starting in 2022. Under the plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, these future beneficiaries would receive a government subsidy to help them buy private health insurance.
An April 26-27 survey by Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., found that likely voters in the district opposed cutting Medicare and Social Security, 59 percent to 38 percent.
Hochul has been “gaining traction” on the Medicare issue, said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg.
The latest Siena poll of 639 likely voters conducted May 18-20 shows Hochul leading Corwin 42 percent to 38 percent, with 12 percent for Davis. The poll’s error margin is plus-or-minus 3.9 percentage points.
Medicare was identified by 21 percent of those surveyed as the “single most important issue” determining their vote.
“This is a tight race” because “Democrats were successful in spinning the Medicare message of fear and voters heard that,” Bill Reilich, chairman of the Republican Party in Monroe County, which includes Rochester, said in an interview.
Whatever the outcome, the election “raises Medicare as an issue to a higher stage than it was,” Bruce Altschuler, a political scientist at State University of New York at Oswego, said in an interview.
The 26th House district stretches east from the Buffalo area, through most of four rural counties and into Rochester’s suburbs. Republican John McCain carried it against Democrat Barack Obama, 52 percent to 46 percent, in the 2008 presidential race.
The Medicare plan dominating the current race was part of the 2012 budget resolution passed April 15 by the Republican-run House. The measure also would cut the top tax rate for wealthy Americans and corporations to 25 percent from 35 percent.
At a May 18 debate in Rochester, Corwin defended the plan. “If we don’t do something about Medicare now, the program will be bankrupt by 2024,” she said, citing a government report earlier this month that benefits would have to be reduced starting that year.
Her campaign aired television ads last week saying that policies supported by Hochul would cut Medicare and Social Security.
At the debate, Hochul said the non-partisan FactCheck.org concluded the Corwin ad was a “a flat-out lie.” She also said, “I am the one person in this race who says I will not cut Medicare.”
The back-and-forth has left retired Eastman Kodak Co. engineer David Lewis, 63, “confused and conflicted about all the issues.”
Though he is a registered Republican and hasn’t definitely decided who to vote for, Lewis said in an interview in Greece, N.Y., that Hochul is “at the top of my list” because “she just comes across as more of an honest candidate.”
Corwin’s campaign has been dogged by a video clip showing a scuffle between her legislative chief of staff, Mike Mallia, and Davis after the third-party candidate met with military veterans in the district. The clip shows Davis, 78, slapping away a video camera held by Mallia.
Davis’s spokesman, Curtis Ellis, said Mallia harassed the candidate, calling him a “coward” for refusing to debate.
Asked about the incident during her May 18 debate with Hochul, Corwin said she “did not authorize that activity” and “had no awareness of it.”
Davis, who started his Akron, N.Y. company, I Squared R Heating Element Co. Inc., in his garage in 1964, is a one-time Republican who then became the Democratic nominee for the House seat in 2004 and 2006. In 2008, he lost the Democratic primary in the district.
He favors tariffs to balance trade with countries such as China. He says he opposes cutting Medicare and Social Security, and that those programs will be solvent once a new trade policy creates more U.S. jobs.
Davis has taken no contributions while lending his campaign $2.7 million through May 20. His adherence to the Tea Party’s push to significantly limit the government is questioned by some of the movement’s activists. The Tea Party Express national group and FreedomWorks, a Tea-Party oriented organization started by former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas, are supporting Corwin.
Outside groups whose spending has added to the race’s intensity include Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which both support Corwin.
“Special elections are tricky things, especially when third-party spoilers create artificially confusing environments for voters,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, which has spent more than $690,000 on the race through May 20.
The race offers the first test for the House Majority PAC, recently formed by Democratic operatives to counter the Republican-leaning groups who helped spur their party’s gains in the 2010 elections. The PAC spent $371,000 on ads through May 20 attacking Corwin’s support of the Republican budget.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, sent a fundraising e-mail for Hochul on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We can deliver a stunning setback to the Republicans’ reckless agenda by winning a special election right in their own backyard,” she wrote.
A message Corwin sent soliciting volunteers asked that they help “stop Nancy Pelosi from stealing a seat in Congress.”
Through May 20, Corwin had raised more than $483,000 and lent her campaign $2.8 million while Hochul had taken in close to $820,000 and lent her campaign $250,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
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