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.
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.
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.