Even in our era of crazy-expensive political campaigns, one has to wonder: Why on earth is so much money being dumped into the special election in western New York to replace former GOP Rep. Chris Lee?
Nearly $5 million has been raised or lent to the campaigns of the three candidates for that Buffalo-area seat—and that doesn’t include the millions more being spent by outside groups to influence the outcome. Notably, a great deal of the cash has come from the candidates themselves; Republican Jane Corwin has lent herself $2.46 million, according to a summary in the Buffalo News (it was fairly clear, when the Republicans were vetting candidates, that the ability to self-fund was highly prized); Democrat Kathy Hochul has lent her campaign $250,000, and Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Tea Party-backed candidate Jack Davis has financed his entire campaign with $2.12 million of his own stash. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
This is surprising, because there’s a strong likelihood that the job won’t exist after 2012. New York is set to lose two congressional seats through reapportionment, and western New York, with its declining population, is going to have to suffer one of those losses. It’s not a good time to be a freshman, no matter which candidate wins the election.
The reason this race is so expensive is because of what it means—or rather, what party officials would like everyone to believe it means. The candidates have been sparring over the future of Medicare, with Hochul charging that Corwin wants to get rid of it, and Corwin countering that the real danger to Medicare is the failure to reform it. Davis has said he would not have voted for GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to dramatically overhaul Medicare, but Davis has not offered a plan to remake the program. [Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?]
A Hochul win, especially in this reliably Republican district, would be seen as sign that Republicans are very vulnerable on the Medicare issue going into 2012. That has some truth to it, but it should be noted that the district has a high percentage of retired people, which skews the numbers. And while a Democratic win in a Republican district is always a coup, the district is not all that conservative, on the current GOP spectrum. These aren’t Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann voters; they voted for people like former Rep. Tom Reynolds. Sure, they want lower taxes, and they tend to be anti-abortion. But they’d get equally riled up over the nonpartisan matter of whether the Buffalo Bills will be moved to Toronto.
A Corwin win would indicate neither an endorsement of eliminating "Medicare as we know it," or sheer party loyalty. True, Hochul is more liberal than the district, but Corwin’s a bit conservative for the district. If Corwin wins, she’s earned it—and it would be in spite of the Medicare overhaul talk, not because of it.
One thing both parties should pay attention to, as they gear up for the 2012 season, is the relative strength of Davis. He’s been polling in the mid-20s, a surprising showing for someone whose ill temper doesn’t play particularly well in low-key, refreshingly friendly western New York (and it’s true—stall out on the road in D.C. during a snowstorm, and people will beep and yell. Stall out on a highway in Buffalo in the middle of a blizzard, and people will stop to give you a jump.). Davis’s following isn’t an indicator of a political ideology; he was a Republican, then ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee, and now he’s a Tea Party candidate. Davis represents that part of the electorate that is just mad—still—about how things are going in Washington. He almost certainly won’t win the election, but his double-digit showing in the polls sends a message to whoever wins the seat.