For Republicans, Medicare is turning into a migraine. Since House Republicans voted for a budget proposal that included Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to convert the federal healthcare program into a voucher-based system, Democrats have been on the attack. In tense negotiations over a package of legislation to raise the debt ceiling, Republicans have wavered on whether or not Ryan's plan should be part of the final deal. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has tied himself into knots, damaging the roll-out of his presidential campaign, explaining whether or not he supports the idea. And Tuesday's special election for New York's 26th District, which has been surprisingly close, may show that the issue will be a winning one for Democrats in the 2012 races. [Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?]
But political analysts warn against reading too much into the special election, which is still as much about voter anxiety over the economy and the direction of the country as it is about fears over Medicare. Democrats have been able to refocus the debate, but will they be able to keep it going into next year?
New York's 26th District has been a Republican stronghold for years. It voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and for John McCain in 2008, and in 2010 re-elected Chris Lee with 73 percent of the vote. But Lee resigned after getting caught seeking women on Craigslist. Republican State Assembleywoman Jane Corwin and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul are battling for the open seat, with businessman Jack Davis running as a third-party candidate. To the surprise of both parties, the race has tightened, with most political analysts predicting that it will be a toss-up, with Hochul even slightly favored. Hochul's campaign has hammered Corwin over her support for the Ryan plan, and the message seems to be resonating with voters. "It's the first Congressional race since the House passed Ryan's plan," says Gerald Gamm, a political science professor at the University of Rochester. "A lot of people are looking at the race and saying, this is a referendum on the House's cost-cutting plan." For Democrats, it seems to show that the political winds have shifted, with voters focusing their ire on the Republican agenda rather than President Obama. It was only a few months ago that Democrats were feeling the heat on Medicare, with older voters angry over claims that Obama's healthcare law slashes certain parts of Medicare. Now, the tables may have been turned. "If Democrats can make the Ryan budget an issue in Congressional races, that means that they can play some offense, not just defense. In November, they were just playing defense," political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says. "I think they can look at this, and feel that they have ammunition now." [Read NY 26 special election brings deja vu for upstate New York.]
But Democrats shouldn't be rejoicing just yet. There are many other factors influencing the special election, and not all of them indicate a Democratic revival. Third party candidate Davis, who's previously run both as a Democrat and a Republican, and now has claimed the Tea Party mantle, has poured millions of his own dollars into the race, bringing himself to equal footing with the two party candidates and stealing voters from the Republicans. Davis has made trade the focus of his political career, and it's a message that resonates in this suburban and rural Rust Belt district which has seen much of its manufacturing decline or move away in the past decades. "What makes this a very powerful message is that he can finance his own campaign," Gamm says. Third party candidates didn't make much of an impact in the 2010 midterm elections, with most voters just focused on rebuking President Obama at the polls by electing Republicans to Congress. But now that the political situation has changed, voters in the 26th District seem more likely to look outside the two parties--although few other third party candidates will have Davis' deep pockets. Furthermore, special elections can be unique, occurring without the run-up of coverage of a presidential or mid-term race. In 2012, with Obama again on the ballot, the voters are more likely to be focused on the economy and how they view the his administration. "He will cast a very, very big shadow," Rothenberg says. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
Next year, we'll know if New York's special election will have been an outlier, or a predictor of what's to come. But the clearest lesson to take from it is that, now that they've made their way back to power, the GOP is no longer immune to voter anger and anxiety about the economy, and the direction of the country. And that Medicare is still a hot-button political issue.