N.Y. race heats up: Democrats test message on GOP plan to 'end Medicare'

In a special congressional election for New York's solidly Republican 26th District, the Democrat says her GOP foe would back Paul Ryan's plan to 'end Medicare.' The parties are taking notice.

David Duprey/AP
Democratic candidate for the 26th District Congressional seat Kathy Hochul accepts a pair of boxing gloves from Max Richtman, left, of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, during a news conference in Clarence, N.Y. Monday.

The special congressional election in New York on May 24 should have been a sleepy affair. The 26th District, in the western part of the state, is solidly Republican, and is likely to disappear anyway in the 2012 election due to redistricting.

But the Democrat, Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, has the Republicans running scared, as she pounds Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin over Washington Republicans’ plan to fundamentally change Medicare. If Ms. Hochul pulls off an upset, watch the Democratic candidates duplicate her message across the country.

“Jane Corwin said she would vote for the 2012 Republican budget that would essentially end Medicare,” a Hochul ad warns darkly.

The ad is referring to the plan put forth by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan that would end Medicare as a fee-for-service program and instead give seniors a fixed sum to purchase insurance on the private market. Democrats say that over time, the vouchers would not keep up with the rising cost of insurance. Republican members of Congress have faced angry constituents at town hall meetings over the plan.

Third candidate a big factor

But in fact, analysts say, the bigger factor in the NY-26 race threatening Assemblywoman Corwin is the presence of a third-party candidate, businessman Jack Davis, who got himself listed on the ballot as a “Tea Party” candidate. Mr. Davis has run for the seat three previous times as a Democrat, and he has little organized tea party support. But polls show he is siphoning more support away from Corwin than from Hochul.

The recent Siena Research Institute poll puts Corwin at 36 percent, Hochul at 31 percent, and Davis at 23 percent.

“Davis is kind of anti-Washington, anti-major parties, so that does resonate with a lot of tea party people,” says James Campbell, political science chair at the University at Buffalo. “If Jack Davis were out of the race, I don’t think the Medicare issue would be making this close.”

Davis’s populist message – he opposes free trade – and regular-guy demeanor, despite his wealth, contrasts with his well-groomed and highly managed opponents, says Mr. Campbell.

As the competitiveness of the race has become clear, both national parties have jumped in with money and support. This week the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee committed $250,000 worth of TV ads in the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee and other groups pledged $900,000 for TV ads for Corwin. On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner appeared in the district on Corwin’s behalf.

Stakes are high for GOP

The stakes are high for the GOP. A Corwin loss would be portrayed as a slam against the party’s proposals for dramatic deficit reduction, and could slow Republican momentum following the party’s big victory last November in congressional, state, and local races. True, NY-26 is just one congressional district, and the result will inevitably be over-interpreted. But the Republican Party has had a bad stretch with special House elections, losing six out of the last seven since 2008, and it wants to turn that trend around.

The NY-26 seat – once held by the late Jack Kemp – opened up following the resignation of Rep. Chris Lee (R), who quit after sending a shirtless picture of himself to a woman on Craigslist.

At first glance, the race may seem to be a repeat of the NY-23 special election of 2009, in which a Democrat won a Republican-held seat with the inadvertent help of a tea party candidate. But this race is different, notes David Wasserman, House-watcher for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“Corwin is a much stronger candidate [than the Republican in the NY-23 race] and her vast personal fortune ... [is] helping her self-finance the race,” Mr. Wasserman writes. “She is also much more of a down-the-line conservative.”

In NY-23, Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava was a moderate, opening herself up to a challenge from the right. The tea party-backed Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, siphoned away support, leading Scozzafava to quit the race and making Mr. Hoffman the effective GOP candidate. Democrat Bill Owens won the election, and he was reelected last November.

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