New York 26th’s Special Election: A Test of Message and Money

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David Duprey/AP (2)

NY-26 Congressional District candidates (from left): Jane Corwin (R), Kathy Hochul (D)

A once-sleepy special election in Western New York has emerged as a bellwether of how two potent political variables could upend the 2012 campaign calculus.

New York’s 26th district is a conservative redoubt, a sprawling region stretching from Buffalo to Rochester in which a majority of registered voters are 45 or older. Despite the district’s demographics, Democratic nominee Kathy Hochul has turned a presumptive Republican cakewalk into a close race by bludgeoning Republican nominee Jane Corwin for wanting to “end Medicare.” In recent weeks, Capitol Hill Democrats have hammered GOPers nationwide for backing Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget, which would replace the existing Medicare system with private-insurance subsidies that would grow less slowly than health-care costs. And the success Hochul is having exploiting the issue in NY-26 has alarmed some Republicans. With voters set to cast their ballots May 24, polls show the a tight race between Corwin, Hochul and Jack Davis, a former Democratic candidate running as an independent on the Tea Party ballot.

Medicare isn’t the only issue political observers are parsing closely. The race is also a test of how much influence spending groups are likely to exert in 2012. American Crossroads, the Karl Rove outfit that bedeviled Democrats last fall, has reserved $650,000 worth of television ad time in the next two weeks. At a press conference Wednesday in Washington, representatives of Tea Party Express said the group, known for spending money on candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, would decide within a week whether to wade in; strategist Sal Russo said he expected the group “will be involved in a material way.” House Majority PAC, a group formed to combat the edge Republicans enjoyed in outside spending in 2010, may also deploy its resources. The race “should have been a slam dunk for them,” spokesman Ryan Rudominer wrote in an email to TIME. “House Republicans’ reckless budget that guts Medicare and protects $40 billion in giveaways to Big Oil has put this heavily Republican seat in play.”

Both parties’ traditional political arms have gotten involved as well. According to a Democratic operative, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is placing a $250,000 media buy. The National Republican Congressional Committee has authorized its independent-expenditure unit to put cash into the race, says an NRCC official, in addition to ongoing efforts like phone-banking and web ads. On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner became the third top Republican to visit the district; Majority Leader Eric Cantor and NRCC chair Pete Sessions made earlier trips.

The race has become something of a carnival. The district’s former Congressman, freshman Republican Chris Lee, resigned in the wake of revelations that he had posted shirtless pictures of himself in a Craigslist personal ad. The candidates vying for his seat are a colorful bunch. In addition to Corwin, Davis and Hochul, the field includes Ian Murphy, a Green Party candidate who crafted a wicked spoof of Corwin’s campaign website, replete with tag lines promising voters that “together we can make delicious soup from the bones of the poor.” Corwin’s campaign and the groups supporting her have cut ads targeting Davis, whom they consider an impostor seeking to siphon off conservative votes by claiming the Tea Party matle.

As Nate Silver points out, it’s important not to overstate the importance of isolated special elections, which generally hinge on the strength of candidates and campaigns or district demographics rather than broad electoral effects. They are not necessarily a harbinger, or even an accurate snapshot, of the national mood. Democrats know this all too well; their victory in a 2010 special election in Pennsylvania’s competitive 12th district didn’t spare them a national drubbing a few months later. Still, even if Corwin hangs on, the drama can’t augur well for Republicans. NY-26 wasn’t among the 61 seats held by Republicans that President Obama captured in 2008. If the Medicare vote proves to be damaging to Republicans on typically friendly turf, true swing districts may present a more dire problem in 2012.