NY-26 Special Election Puts Republicans on Notice

May 25, 2011 11:48am

ABC News’ Huma Khan reports: Republicans are reeling from the shocking upset in New York’s 26th district, where Democrat Kathy Hochul’s win over Jane Corwin could lay the groundwork for Democrats’ fundraising and campaign strategy in the months to come.

Though it’s too soon to conclude that the special election’s outcome is a referendum for 2012 — an election that will be more focused on the presidential race — it has no doubt put Republicans on notice.

GOP leaders have attempted to spin the race as one where third-party candidate Jack Davis – who poured $2.3 million of his own money into his campaign — skewed the numbers in Hochul’s favor. Insiders say Corwin also failed to appeal to conservatives.

But no matter how they spin it, behind the scenes, there is significant concern about whether the GOP leadership will be able to defend Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial Medicare plan that became the groundwork for Democrats’ campaign in western New York, and one that Corwin now admits she should’ve addressed sooner. It’s clear that without the Medicare issue, this seat would almost certainly have remained in the GOP column. Every Democrat, and four Republicans, voted against the Ryan budget.

“Kathy Hochul ought to send Paul Ryan a thank-you note,” Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde wrote today. “Hochul's competitiveness in a longtime Republican stronghold should send a warning flare to national Republicans. Hochul rode the Medicare horse from the moment Ryan's plan was unveiled through the home stretch.”

How Republican is New York’s 26th district? Only three Democrats have won the House seat in this area in the past century. It was one of just four districts in the state that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. And it was one of the few districts that voted overwhelmingly for Republican Carl Paladino in last year’s governor’s race. Paladino lost to Andrew Cuomo by a wide margin, capturing only 34 percent of the vote in the entire state.

The race no doubt signals significant challenges for Republicans ahead, as they sway between whether to embrace Ryan’s plan wholeheartedly or rethink their game. 

“Republicans need to figure out a response for when future Medicare attacks come,” said Rothenberg Political Report’s analyst and political editor Nathan Gonzales. “It’s not a question of if Medicare attacks come from Democrats, it’s a question of when and Republicans have to have a better response.” There are few other issues that rile Americans like their health care.

Ryan is proposing a government-subsidized private insurance Medicare plan that would kick off in 2022, and replace the current system in which the government provides insurance to seniors. It would also overhaul Medicaid by switching the program into a block grant system, in which the federal government would allocate money to states and let them decide how to use it. Currently, the federal government matches every dollar that states spend on Medicaid and the formula varies from state to state.

Americans haven’t quite yet digested the radical overhaul.

A poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation today found that 60 percent of Americans prefer to keep Medicaid as is, with the federal government setting standards and guidelines for states. Only 35 percent of those polled support the kind of changes Ryan is proposing. More than half, 53 percent, of people don’t want to see any reduction in Medicaid spending at all.

“With about 69 million people expected to be covered by Medicaid this year, it is no longer the welfare-linked program it once was,” said Kaiser President and chief executive Drew Altman. “Medicaid may not be the lower-hanging fruit that many who want to reduce federal entitlement spending have assumed it is.”

Medicare changes may come with even bigger consequences.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last month found that 65 percent of Americans – including a majority of Republicans — oppose a voucher system for Medicare, and the number rises to 84 percent if the change produced a gap between the voucher sum and the premiums seniors would pay. Ryan insists his proposal is not a voucher system, but the issue remains a sensitive one for Americans, as illustrated in New York.

In Washington, it no doubt will become a political weapon for Democrats as they prepare for the 2012 election.

“They will try to use this as a blueprint in an effort to win back the House and keep control” in the Senate, Gonzales said. “This was not a continuation of the 2010 election. Democrats [then] were on the defensive in races across the country and Democrats were able to put Republicans on the defensive this time.”

Conservative group American Crossroads, which funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Corwin’s campaign, acknowledged as much, calling the election a “wake-up call.”

“It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year,” president and chief executive Steven Law said in a statement.

GOP presidential contenders, which will likely define the party in 2012, will have to walk a fine line when it comes to Ryan’s budget proposal. They face the added challenge of appeasing conservative voters -– who will not take lightly to public criticisms of the plan, as was the case with Newt Gingrich – but also more moderate voices in the general election.

Tuesday’s special election was held to replace Republican Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned after a shirtless photo of him was leaked to the press by a woman the married Lee met, and flirted with, on Craigslist.

ABC News’ Amy Walter, Jonathan Karl and Gary Langer contributed to this report.

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