Hochul Wins in NY-26: Dems Claim a Medicare Scalp as GOP Points to Special Circumstances

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David Duprey / AP

Democratic elect for the 26th District Congressional seat, Kathy Hochul

Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special congressional election in Western New York on Tuesday night, riding a wave of discontent over Paul Ryan’s budget to an upset victory in a staunchly conservative district.

The Associated Press called the race a little after 10:00 p.m. With 66% of precincts reporting, Hochul captured 48% of the vote, with Republican Jane Corwin earning 43%. Third-party candidate Jack Davis, a three-time Democratic congressional candidate running on the Tea Party line, won 8% of the vote.

Less than three months ago, when GOP Rep. Chris Lee resigned in the wake of a Craigslist scandal, the result would have been unthinkable. The district, which stretches from Buffalo to Rochester, is one of the few Republican strongholds in the reliably blue Empire State. But Hochul pounded Corwin for her support of Ryan’s 2012 Republican budget, which would lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy while replacing Medicare with private-insurance subsidies that would fail to keep pace with rising health-care costs. In a recent Siena College poll, voters cited Medicare as the top issue in the race.¬†“We served notice to the Republicans that we will fight them anywhere in America when it comes to defending and strengthening Medicare,” DCCC chair Steve Israel wrote in a statement¬†Tuesday night.

Hochul also got a significant boost from third-party candidate Jack Davis, who vultured enough votes from Corwin to tip the election to the Democrat, who failed to win 50% of the vote. Hochul was propelled by high turnout in vote-rich Erie County, a Democratic-leaning swath of the district where she serves as clerk. (Hochul, who lives just outside the district and wasn’t eligible to cast a ballot, used her job to deflect carpetbagger claims.) Superstitious Democrats may wait to uncork the champagne, as Hochul’s victory may not be formalized right away. Hours before the polls closed, Corwin’s camp obtained a court order preventing the results from being certified before a hearing Thursday morning. Her spokesman says the request is “standard procedure and very typical in close elections.” But in the end, the race wasn’t really that close.

The result will send both parties’ spin machines into overdrive. To Democrats, Hochul’s win in a ruby-red district that backed John McCain and George W. Bush underlines the political peril of radically changing an entitlement program that Americans are reluctant to relinquish. While seniors are unaffected by Ryan’s plan, Democrats have sought to sow concerns among the generation that has paid into Medicare for years only to see it morph before their eyes. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently launched an ad campaign targeting 44 -to 54-year-old voters in 20 districts where they perceive the Republican incumbent to be vulnerable.

Republicans downplayed the defeat, chalking it up to a third-party candidate who upended the political math. “Jane Corwin ran a hard-fought campaign against two well-funded Democrats, including one masquerading under the Tea Party name,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said late Tuesday. “Obviously, each side would rather win a special election than lose, but to predict the future based on the results of this unusual race is naive and risky.”

That’s true to an extent, and political forecasters shouldn’t interpret a lone off-cycle victory in a quirky outpost as a sign of a seismic political shift. But there’s little doubt that it became a national referendum over the Ryan budget and the future of Medicare, with both parties sending in gobs of outside cash and enlisting a slew of splashy surrogates. “I won’t dispute their contention that Medicare helped them. The polling shows it did,” says a Republican operative. “We have to find a way to handle that better.”

The race offered a glimpse of both 2012 campaign playbooks. Each candidate demonized the other for plotting the death of Medicare: Democrats by opting for inaction as the entitlement program slides toward insolvency, and Republicans through their support of Ryan’s budget, which has become a litmus test for winning the support of the party’s conservative base even as members quail at the prospect of defending an unpopular plan. “We have to bring this back to spending,” the Republican operative says. “We can win on those terms.” President Obama did not mention Medicare in a statement congratulating Hochul on her victory.

Democrats hope the result indicates 2012 will be a propitious cycle. If they can pull an upset on unfriendly turf, the thinking goes, purple districts will topple like dominoes. “This budget is going to be the gift that keeps on giving,” a Democratic aide told TIME shortly after all but four Republicans backed the Ryan blueprint. It’s only one test, but so far that prediction seems on the mark.