New York Special Election Medicare Fight Enters Spin Mode

Surprise victory in New York's special election shows political winds may be shifting.

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After defending ground for two years, Democrats finally found some momentum shifting their way after unexpectedly nabbing a heavily Republican district in the New York 26th District special election on Tuesday. After Democratic Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul defeated Republican State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin to win the seat, the spin war began between the parties began. The GOP dismissed it as only one race, but Democrats claimed the results were clear--voters are rejecting the Republican plans to trim the deficit by reforming Medicare.

One thing seems sure: congressional campaign battles are no longer one-sided referendums on President Obama and the Democratic party. With divided government, both parties have ideas and platforms they'll have to defend from angry voters. [Read Democrats play offense with medicare in NY 26.]

The district, at the western end of upstate New York, stretches across the rural and suburban areas between Buffalo and Rochester, without including either city. It's been a GOP stronghold since the current lines were drawn in 2002, voting Republican in the past three presidential elections. As a result, the race to replace Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned after a shirtless posting on Craigslist was uncovered, wasn't initially expected to be close. But as Hochul began to pick up momentum, and third-party candidate Jack Davis also mixed the race up with an anti free trade platform, political observers took closer notice of it in recent weeks. Hochul's ads focused on Medicare, blasting Corwin for backing the plan advocated by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan to convert the program into a voucher-based system. In the end, Hochul beat Corwin, 47 percent to 43 percent. Davis nabbed 9 percent of the vote, less than most expected and not enough to explain Corwin's surprise victory. Hochul "would have won it, one-on-one," says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

For Democrats, the actual gain is only small and short-lived, as political analysts believe the seat will likely be eliminated by redistricting, as New York will soon be losing two Congressional seats. But its symbolism could be longer lasting, signalling a shift in the electoral winds. Since the 2008 election, Democrats have been on the defensive, focusing their time and effort on pushing back Republicans attacks on President Obama's record. With partial control of Congress and their own plans to defend, Republicans are now facing the possibility of losing ground with voters. Republicans noted that special elections, fought outside of the context of a nation-wide campaign, can often be unpredictable. The Democrats won a few special election victories before getting swept out of power last year. "If special elections were an early warning system, they sure failed to alert the Democrats of the political tsunami that flooded their ranks in 2010," said Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. [Read special election brings deja vu for upstate New York.]

But they can also often gauge how an issue is registering to voters. When Republicans unexpectedly won the special election to replace Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2010, it signalled growing voter anger over Obama's healthcare reform initiative. This election seems to be a signal that voters aren't happy with Republican proposals, either. "People often send a message in a special election," says Sabato. "Essentially, the message that Republicans should get, as much as they don't want to receive it, is that they're going to have to fix the Ryan plan on Medicare."

The GOP can't go back on the Ryan plan, after all but a handful of House Republicans voted for it as part of their 2012 budget resolution. But for now, they can defend it as a reasonable alternative to the status quo on Medicare, as well as Obama's healthcare law. "Will Medicare become a program in which a board of bureaucrats manages its bankruptcy by denying care to seniors?" asked Ryan in a video released on Wednesday. He was referring to an efficiency panel which the healthcare law established, and which Obama has proposed strengthening as a deficit reduction measure. Whether the Republicans' or Democrats' attacks end up sticking, it's clear the Medicare issue isn't going away, and it could ultimately tip the 2012 congressional races.