As predicted, the GOP lost the special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District Tuesday, sending a Democrat to Washington in place of Republican Chris Lee, who resigned in order to short-circuit an emerging scandal having to do with his private life.
To hear the Democrats, who are crowing about the victory today, the seat changed hands because the Republicans are out to destroy Medicare. “Special elections often don't mean much but this one does,” said former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost, “because of the message it sends on a big issue. GOP is now in full retreat. The House is in play.” [Read Democrats play offense with medicare in NY 26.]
The Republicans are taking some solace in the idea that the race did not turn on any one issue. Instead it was the presence of a self-described “Tea Party” candidate named Jack Davis in the race--who had run for Congress three times before as a Democrat--that split the center-right vote and allowed the Democrat, Kathy Hochul, to eke out victory with 47 percent of the vote.
Issues are important, but in the sense that they provided a rational for people to justify voting the way they did. Some Democrats wanted to send a message on Medicare. Some Republicans and conservatives wanted to send a message to the New York State Republican Party, which still picks its nominees for special elections behind closed doors. [Read special election brings deja vu for upstate New York.]
Both issues were certainly contributing factors in determining the outcome of the race, the role they played is being hyped for political purposes. The reason the GOP lost comes down to a more basic reason: the party fielded a candidate who ran a bad campaign.
Republican Jane Corwin ran a conservative campaign, meaning she allowed herself to be defined by her opponent and was ineffective in mounting a defense. In the current political environment it is a mistake to assume that party registration numbers--New York’s 26th Congressional District is overwhelmingly Republican--are enough to carry the day.
Moreover it is safe to assume that the Democrats wanted to take the seat away from the Republicans more than the GOP wanted to keep it. They needed the win and, now that they have it, they have the bragging rights that go with victory, hence their argument that the race is a “bellwether” hinting at the outcome of next November’s election. Remember, they won several GOP seats in specials leading up to the 2010 election and still lost control of the House by a lot.