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What lessons will GOP take from losing New York-26 House seat?

Medicare is indeed a perilous issue for Republicans, Tuesday's House race in New York's 26th District showed. But so are third-party candidates and tepid campaigns.

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At the same time, tea party candidate Davis, a former Democrat who self-funded his $2.5 million campaign, focused on jobs and the economy, and targeted especially free trade agreements that “ship our jobs overseas.” He pledged to “put American jobs first.” Republicans dubbed him a spoiler.

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“In New York-26, the Republican Party nominated a fairly conservative establishment Republican in Jane Corwin, but an ex-Democrat named Jack Davis, running as a 'tea party' candidate, siphoned votes from the Republican,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that backed Corwin, and a former representative from Indiana.

“The reason was not that Davis is obviously more conservative or because Corwin is not sufficiently conservative: It’s because Corwin did a terrible job articulating the free-market message, and Davis consistently demagogued the important issue of trade,” Mr. Chocola said in a blog on National Review online.

With the win in New York at their backs, Democrats are bringing the Ryan budget to the Senate floor for a vote this week, where it is expected to fail. Democrats hope these two defeats will force Republicans to be more open to compromise in ongoing negotiations over how to rein in deficits and raise the national debt limit. They also see the race as promising for campaign prospects in 2012.

“The voters in NY-26 sent a clear message that ending Medicare as we know it is not how we should tackle our nation’s deficits, and that’s a message that will reverberate across the country in 2012,” said House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer, in a statement after Tuesday's vote.

But political analysts caution that it’s a long way to November 2012, and what’s on the minds of voters can shift many times before the next reckoning at the polls. Political scientists John Pitney at Claremont McKenna College calls the outcome in the New York race “a sign that Medicare is a problem, but not necessarily a sign that Democrats are going to retake the House.”

“Republicans have known all along that Medicare was going to be a tough sell; their polling suggested that. They’re going to have to change the terms of the debate,” he adds. “If Republicans can keep the focus on deficit reduction and the national debt, they’re in better shape. If people are thinking about Medicare, Democrats are in better shape.”

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