Republican and conservative groups have poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars to save what should be a reliably GOP seat in New York’s 26th district, fighting off a spirited Democratic challenger and a vote-splitting Tea Party independent. But whether Republican Jane Corwin ekes out a win on Tuesday or not, the election is already a tough blow to the party’s flagging proposal to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher system.
In the first federal election since House Republicans introduced their ambitious budget that ends Medicare as we know it, Democrat Kathy Hochul sought from the start to turn the race into a one-issue referendum on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal. While Corwin defended the party line at first, she’s spent the final weeks fleeing the plan, first by falsely attributing its entitlement cuts to her opponent’s platform and later by dumping her support for the Ryan plan entirely. Her actions leave little room for doubt that the GOP budget’s is politically toxic in the area.
The latest poll from Siena shows Medicare is the district’s top issue and has Hochul taking the lead. Another poll from Democratic outfit PPP finds a 6-point lead for Hochul. While Corwin succeeded in the crucial task of pushing down the vote for self-financed Tea Partier Jack Davis, the Siena poll found that Hochul had absorbed his former supporters, part of a counterintuitive trend that led election prognosticator Stu Rothenberg to rate the race as tilting Dem.
As Republicans have argued, Davis’ presence complicates the question of just whether the race would be competitive in a two-way matchup. “If this was a one-on-one race, I think we’d be fine,” former NRCC chair Tom Davis told The Hill recently.
Conservative group American Crossroads, which has pledged $700,000 to the race, put it more bluntly in an email to reporters on Monday. “This race is competitive because a phony Tea Party candidate is spending millions of dollars purposefully confusing voters in an attempt to split the Republican vote,” communications director Jonathan Collegio wrote. “I’m not sure what the overarching meaning is there, other than that some older men are willing to spend vast amounts of treasure pursuing inexplicable ends.”
“The Republican vote plus the Tea Party vote will equal a majority,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told TPM in an e-mail. “On the other hand, this is Jack Kemp’s old district, a rock-ribbed Republican one that even went for the rather loony GOP nominee for governor in 2010. So how did a Democrat get in position to potentially win even a split-vote here? The Ryan Medicare proposal is the most obvious answer.”
Corwin apparently feels the same way as she’s spent her final days before the vote carefully walking back her previous support for the Ryan plan.
“It’s starting a conversation that we absolutely have to have, but I’m not married to it,” she told elderly voters on Sunday, according to Politico. “I certainly would entertain any proposals that would improve any of these programs. … I’ve been saying the same thing since Day One.”
So while NY-26 isn’t a perfect test case, the fact that a mostly generic Republican candidate in a conservative district has reacted to attacks on the party’s Medicare plan by first inaccurately ascribing it to the Democrats before outright abandoning it is not exactly a positive sign for the national GOP. National Democrats are betting that the formula they used in Western New York will play well in other races.
“Even in an overwhelmingly Republican district like NY-26, voters are rejecting the Republican plan to end Medicare,” DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson told TPM. “House Republicans who voted to end Medicare should be very worried about losing independent voters and seniors in 2012.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.