By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/25/2011 3:10:36 PM ET 2011-05-25T19:10:36

In a special House election carefully watched by national political strategists, Democrat Kathy Hochul won what had been a Republican seat Tuesday in upstate New York, lifting Democrats’ hopes for the 2012 campaign.

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As her campaign’s centerpiece, Hochul attacked changes in the Medicare program proposed by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan.

“I will fight any plan that tries to decimate Medicare – that is something people in this district feel passionately about and I do as well,” Hochul said in a debate last week with her Republican opponent Jane Corwin, who supported the Ryan budget plan.

A Democrat-turned-Tea Party candidate Jack Davis was also on the ballot.

Where Republican stood on Ryan plan
Corwin accused Hochul of using “a political scare tactic” to panic voters about the Ryan plan. She cited the recent report from the Medicare trustees that the hospital insurance part of Medicare would be insolvent by 2024 as the reason to redesign it.

Ryan’s redesign of Medicare, with federally subsidized premiums for private insurance, would take effect for people who are now under age 55.

Video: Rep Israel says NY-26th "changes the competitive playing field" (on this page)

In a speech Monday at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer praised Ryan as "courageous" for addressing the entitlements issue, even though he disagreed with the specifics of Ryan’s proposal. After Tuesday’s results, other Republicans may not want to be so "courageous."

The House passed Ryan’s plan on April 15 with no Democrats voting for it and only four Republicans voting against it.

Aftermath of sex scandal
Hochul will fill the vacancy created when Republican Rep. Chris Lee quit after a sex scandal. Her victory made Democratic strategists’ fondest wish come true.

“A Democratic win in a deep-red Republican district like this would be catastrophic for the GOP’s extremist agenda to end Medicare -- and they know it,” said Robby Mook, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a fund-raising plea the day before the election.

Reuters reported that House Republican Leader Eric Cantor on Monday had disputed the idea that the New York special election was a referendum on Medicare.

"This race is about the fact that it's a three-way race," Cantor told reporters. "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."

Republicans could take some solace from that fact that it was a three-way race which made it a more ambiguous indicator than a pure head-to-head contest. But it could not be anything other than demoralizing and unsettling for Republicans to lose what had been a GOP seat since Jack Kemp held it in the 1970s.

The district may be substantially reshaped or even eliminated by redistricting now underway in New York, since the state is losing two House seats.

In the 2008 presidential election Republican John McCain carried it with 52 percent and in 2004 George W. Bush won it with 55 percent.

Republican: don't ascribe deep meaning
Last Friday Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the conservative group American Crossroads, said, “This race is competitive because a phony Tea Party candidate (Davis) is spending millions of dollars purposefully confusing voters in an attempt to split the Republican vote…Let’s not be silly and ascribe deep ideological meaning to an atypical three-way House race in upstate New York.”

American Crossroads invested $700,000 in advertising and phone calls in the race.

In addition to American Crossroads the political parties and outside groups also invested millions of dollars in the race.

Helping boost Hochul were a Democratic group called House Majority PAC with more than $370,000, the Communication Workers of America with $110,000, and the Service Employees International Union with more than $15,000.

Corwin loaned her campaign nearly $2 million of her own fortune, made from her family’s telephone directory business.

Davis, an industrialist, spent more than $2.6 million from his own fortune on the race. Federal Election Commission records showed that Davis received no campaign contributions; his campaign was entirely self-financed.

Running as a Democrat in 2006, Davis spent $2.2 million of his own money and running again as a Democrat in 2008 he spent $3.9 million of his own money. On his campaign web site he said he had “been a Republican most of my life. I voted for Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater and Reagan (twice).”

There are going to be two more special House elections this year to fill vacancies, one in California in July, for a seat held by Democrat Jane Harman and another in Nevada in September for the seat vacated by Republican Dean Heller, who he was appointed to the Senate to replace John Ensign.

Special elections which result in party switches do have predictive value, according to research by Tom Brunell, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas and graduate student David Smith. The two researchers studied every House special election between 1900 and 2008.

They found that for every net seat gain by a party in a special election, the party can expect to pick up on average more than six seats in the following general election.

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Video: Democrats win special election

  1. Closed captioning of: Democrats win special election

    >>> we can balance our budget the right way and not on the backs of our seniors.

    >> democrat kathy hochul won a republican seat in upstate new york , helped by a third party candidate who split the republican volt but the key factor was likely paul ryan 's unpopular medicare plan or so say the democrats. hochul defeated jane corwin 47-43, with democrat-turned- tea party candidate jack davis picking up 9% of the vote that could have been critical. is medicare the democrats' secret weapon as they gear up for 2012 in the new head of the democratic party is florida congressman debbie wasserman schultz and joins us now. kathy hochul, she could be a new member of your soft bull team.

    >> we are already in soft ball mode.

    >> you know what her athletic prowess is, we haven't checked that out. seriously speaking --

    >> we take all comers.

    >> is there a danger of trying to overread these results, overnationalize the results? going forward, medicare your big platform against the republicans or not?

    >> i think it's pretty clear. i mean, it was incredibly gratifying for democrats across the country that kathy won last night. she ran great race. very grassroots campaign. quite frankly , jack davis that third party candidate ran on the tea party line this time has run for congress twice in the last two elections as a democrat. so he drew off, we're quite sure, quite a few democratic votes potentially, and to say -- i think that kathy probably would have won this race head-to-head and that the third party candidate's not really so much of a factor. but the bottom line is that this race was decided because the voters of new york 26 and voters across this country do not want republicans to end medicare as we know t they want to make sure that we can address our long-term deficit needs by, as the president suggested, sitting down around the table, working how we can strike the right balance so we are not balancing, as kathy said last night in her victory speech, all the pain and all the hurt on the backs of our seniors. and so this is a very strong message that was sent not just in new york 26 but was sent last week boy voters in jacksonville, florida who haven't elected a democratic mayor in more than 20 years that cuts to medicare and ending medicare is unacceptable and in new hampshire, a solidly red state house seat, the democratic candidate won that special election as well. so, very strong message.

    >> let me show you -- paul ryan understandably, on " morning joe " today, had a different take. show you a little bit what he said today.

    >> he needs to

    >> when a democrat runs as a third party tea party candidate, spends a couple million dollars it is going to have an effect. second thing, there is a medicare story to be told here, the medicare story being told here, the president and his party have decided to shamelessly distort and demagog medicare . we will see a new medhi scare reform campaign here.

    >> so, your response to that, demagoguery. have you overstated what --

    >> come on the paul ryan clearly needs to be doing that he proposed a plan that even newt gingrich called radical, the pot calling the kettle back who is engaging in mediscare, the republicans leading up to the 2010 election actually fabricated what democrats did to medicare . in fact, we added 12 years of solvency to medicare and ensured that it would be better for seniors overall. and what the republicans have done under paul ryan 's plan is actually end medicare as we know it turn into it into a voucher program, there's no running for that people under 55 years old would no longer qualify for the medicare program, they would be given a voucher and forced to fend for themselves in the private health insurance market, become to the days when seniors could be dropped or dough mied coverage for pre-existing condition, costs would skyrocket out of control and insurance would be unaffordable and end the social safety net that medicare has been for years.

    >> actually that may be tested in the senate, today, harry reid telling reporters that, in fact, they may schedule a vote as early as 5:00. . they can't run from it andrea.

    >> let me ask you about the middle east , something no one can run from either, we have had this dramatic appearance by netanyahu , you were there on the house floor yesterday, a joint meeting of congress. he got as many standing ovations as the president did at the state of the union . and afterwards, nancy pelosi , harry reid , as well as john boehner and all -- eric cantor and all the rest, mitch mcconnell , embracing him, matching out with him. you have the democratic leadership basically siding with the prime minister of israel and not with the president of the united states on the key disagreement that they have over whether the '67 borders should ability least, with land warning is appropriate land swaps a starting point for negotiations. this seemed to be a slap in the face of the real leader of your party.

    >> that is a total mischaracterization where our leadership is with president obama . there isn't daylight there. prime minister netanyahu gave a remarkable speech, first time the prime minister of israel publicly suggest there had would be israelis living beyond the '67 borders that would not end up in israel, in negotiations for a two-state solution with the palestinians. i think the president made a very clear case that apac and other organizations were more comfortable with after he talks on sunday, i wouldn't say there was anything close to a rebuke.

    >> well, he didn't -- if you don't want to call it a rebuke, the president didn't back down from what he said. he was very clear in explaining the context to apec, at which position are you more comfortable with, there is a clear disagreement between the prime minister and the president on the emphasis here.

    >> well, i was in many, many meetings with prime minister netanyahu the last two days and i don't think the disagreement is as clear as you're characterizing it. there are -- in any strong relationship, like there is between the united states and his real, there are going to be differences in approach, but when it -- president obama clearly laid out and characterized more clearly what he proposed on -- in his speech on thursday, which was begin negotiations at the '67 lines with neutrally agreed upon land swaps, but by definition would mean not beginning at the 67 lines, which would not end up at the '67 lines. and that's -- that, i think, there is maybe some subtle differences in terms of which land and some other issues, but those are differences that will be hammered out in negotiations, which is exactly what president obama said was the appropriate place to handle that.

    >> we have to leave it there

    >> okay.

    >> the head of the democratic party , debbie wasserman schultz , thank you very much.


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