The morning after Democrat Kathy Hochul used the Medicare issue to win what had been a Republican House seat in New York, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., went on the counter-offensive, defending his plan to redesign the entitlement program and accusing Democrats of demagoguery in their attacks on his proposal.
"The president and his party have decided to shamelessly distort and demagogue Medicare,” Ryan said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Ryan said the principal cause of the Republicans’ loss of the seat in New York’s 26th Congressional District was the presence on the ballot of Democrat-turned-Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, who took 9 percent of the vote, to Hochul's 47 percent and Republican opponent Jane Corwin’s 43 percent.
About 103,000 votes were cast Tuesday, compared to about 162,00 votes cast in the most recent contested special election in New York in 2009 in another upstate New York district. That, too, was a three-way race in a formerly Republican-held district, which Democrats won.
“When you have a Democrat running as a Tea Party (candidate) and spends over $2 million making it a three-way race, that's going to hurt the Republican a lot,” Ryan said.
As her campaign’s centerpiece, Hochul attacked Ryan’s budget plan, which the House passed last month with no Democrats voting for it and only four Republicans voting against it.
Ryan: scare tactics are effective “If you can scare seniors into thinking that their current benefits are being affected, that's going to have an effect,” Ryan said. “And that is exactly what took place here. So yes, it's demagoguery. It's scaring seniors.”
But he contended that in the long run, “It won't work, I really don't think, with 15 or 18 months to go (before next year’s elections). We will get the facts out. The truth will get out.”
Voters next year, he said, will “reward people for not trying to scare people but fix problems.”
He acknowledged that “people in the Republican Party are nervous because of these kinds of ads because demagoguery unfortunately has worked in the past. But I think people are getting tired of it. I think we have plenty of time to get the facts out there. And once people actually learn the facts, we are fine.”
But conversely, he said Congress and the American people “don't have that much more time to keep kicking the can down the road because we will have a debt crisis if we don't start taking these issues seriously.”
Ryan Medicare plan would affect those under age 55 Ryan’s redesign of Medicare, with federally subsidized premiums for private insurance, would take effect for people who are now under age 55.
Ryan admitted that understanding his proposal does require a long and detailed explanation. “That’s the problem” he said, alluding to the power of 30-second TV attack ads.
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 in New York, other Republicans may not want to be so "courageous."
Celebrating victory, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Steve Israel said Tuesday night, "Even in one of the most Republican districts, seniors and independent voters rejected the Republican plan to end Medicare."
There will 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 was appointed to the Senate to replace John Ensign.
Aftermath of sex scandal
Hochul will fill the vacancy created when Republican Rep. Chris Lee quit after a sex scandal.
Republicans could take some solace from the fact that it was a three-way race, making it a more ambiguous indicator than a pure head-to-head contest.
But it couldn’t be anything other than 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 under way in New York, since the state is losing two House seats.
In the 2008 presidential election Republican John McCain carried the district 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 a statement after Corwin's loss, the group said the debate over whether Medicare affected the outcome more than Davis being on the ballot “is mostly a partisan Rorschach Test. What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year.”
In addition to American Crossroads, the two 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.
Special elections that 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.