Wrestling With the Implications of New York's Special Election

In this Tuesday’s closely watched special election in New York’s 26th congressional district, Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin and Jack Davis, who ran under the “tea party” column, capturing a seat that had not been held by her party for decades.

In this Tuesday’s closely watched special election in New York’s 26th congressional district, Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin and Jack Davis, who ran under the “tea party” column, capturing a seat that had not been held by her party for decades.   With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Hochul received 47 percent of the vote to Corwin’s 43 percent and Davis’s 9 percent. Turnout was estimated to be nearly 25 percent, surprisingly high for a special election.   The seat opened up when Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned in February following the revelation online of shirtless pictures he had sent of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist. Lee had received 74 percent of the vote in 2010, and 55 percent in 2008, when he was first elected. His predecessor, Republican Thomas Reynolds, served for five terms, with his narrowest margin of victory coming in 2006, when he received 52 percent of the vote. Given the historic Republican dominance in the district, Hochul’s victory has reinvigorated the Democratic Party, still reeling from major losses in 2010.   Spending by both parties and outside advocacy groups in the race was high. Corwin put $2.6 million of her own money into the race, and her investment was bolstered by $700,000 from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, $420,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and $100,000 from the American Action Network.   Kathy Hochul, meanwhile, raised just under $1 million, and was supported by $371,000 from House Majority PAC, $267,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a combined $186,000 from the Communications Workers for America and the Service Employees International Union.   Political prognosticators have been quick to tease out implications for the upcoming electoral cycle from Hochul’s victory. Among the conclusions being bandied about are that the political dynamics that produced the GOP’s gains in 2010 are no longer operative and that the playing field now favors Democrats, so much so that they have a chance to retake the House in 2012. Another conclusion is that the influence of the Tea Party has waned to the point of insignificance. Still another is that Democrats across the country will be able to emulate Hochul’s success in appealing to swing voters and the working class by attacking House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to replace the traditional Medicare funding system with vouchers.   The latter assessment has resonated so strongly among Washington Democrats that Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the DCCC, has said he intends to target ninety-seven House Republicans—including Ryan himself—with ads hammering them for supporting the Ryan plan.   Some blame Jack Davis’s presence on the ballot for Corwin’s loss. Davis is well known in the district, having run for Congress in 2004, 2006, and 2008 as a Democrat. (Before these runs, Davis was a lifelong Republican, but left the party due to its support for free trade.)  Davis spent more than $2 million dollars of his own money in the campaign and was endorsed by David Bellavia, a prominent local conservative who sought but failed to receive the Republican Party’s nomination to run in the special election himself.   Jeff Koch, a professor of politics at the State University of New York at Geneseo, which is within the bounds of the 26th district, is unsurprised by the high level of spending in the election. “Once it became a competitive race, both sides would try to outspend each other,” he says. “For Democrats, I think they knew that if they take this it is a big motivator and they could say it portends well. I think Republicans knew that and didn’t want it to happen.”   Koch sees the Ryan Medicare plan and, to a far lesser extent, Jack Davis’s campaign, as the primary factors that led to Hochul’s victory. Furthermore, he agrees with those who see national implications in the special election’s outcome, particularly regarding the effectiveness of attacks on Ryan’s Medicare plan. “This must be quite alarming,” he says. “Republicans are going to take some pause on whether they want to still support the Ryan plan.”   John McLaughlin, a New York–based Republican pollster, argues that Corwin and the Republican Party made many mistakes in the race, but that the fundamentals of the current political terrain—high unemployment and the persistence of the economic downturn—are still on the side of the GOP. “The very first mistake was allowing the Democrats to make Medicare the top issue,” he says. “We need a message that informs voters to the fact that Medicare only pays for half its cost. Medicare is broke and needs to be reformed now.”   McLaughlin adds that he feels it is ironic that Republicans lost a district that was once represented by Housing Secretary and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp by failing to talk about Kemp’s signature issues of tax cuts and job creation. “Time to get back to offense,” McLaughlin says.   At least some in the national Republican Party seem inclined to take McLaughlin’s advice. House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged today that opposition to the Ryan plan played a “small part” in the loss of NY-26, but argued that the plan constitutes the only viable proposal to put Medicare on sustainable financial footing.  Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. E-mail him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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