May 24, 2011 -- In what can be taken as the first referendum on the House Republican budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, Democrat Kathy Hochul picked up a Republican seat in western New York thanks in part to her ability to attach GOP candidate Jane Corwin to the budget's restructuring of Medicare.
The surprise upset in New York's 26th congressional district, is likely to be seen by many as a bellwether for 2012.
Today'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.
Corwin's last-minute appeal to voters, and hundreds of thousands in dollars from outside conservative groups, did little to improve the assemblywoman's chances in the Republican-leaning district.
The race was initially considered a shoo-in for Corwin.
The last Democrat to be elected from the district left office eight years ago, and only three Democrats have won in this area in the past century. New York's 26th was one of just four districts in the state that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
But Hochul made Ryan's Medicare plan, which would overhaul the program from the way it exists now, the key issue of her campaign. Hochul portrayed Corwin, a multimillionaire, as a Republican insider who would help end Medicare.
In a district where the elderly make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the population, the message carried weight.
Although observers warn against looking too much at the special election as a bellwether for 2012, Democrats were quick to tout the win as a referendum on Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial Medicare plan.
"Kathy Hochul's victory tonight is a tribute to Democrats' commitment to preserve and strengthen Medicare, create jobs, and grow our economy. And it sends a clear message that will echo nationwide: Republicans will be held accountable for their vote to end Medicare," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel sent a similar warning message to Republicans.
"Today, the Republican plan to end Medicare cost Republicans $3.4 million and a seat in Congress. And this is only the first seat," Israel, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "We served notice to the Republicans that we will fight them anywhere in America when it comes to defending and strengthening Medicare."
Within the GOP, the election is likely to ignite debate on how to handle the issue that could come back to bite them in 2012. The Medicare issue has already divided the party, with many -- like Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. -- saying they won't vote for Ryan's budget.
Corwin's troubles, however, extended beyond Medicare. Republican insiders acknowledged that the multimillionaire assemblywoman was a weak candidate who didn't connect, even with GOP voters. A third party candidate and a poorly run campaign by Corwin also contributed to Hochul's win.
Even though outside groups like American Crossroads jumped in to her rescue, it did little to appease voters.
The $6 million race attracted money from around the country, on all fronts, including hundreds of thousands from the conservative group American Crossroads.
Political bigwigs have also stepped in to endorse their candidates. House Speaker John Boehner made a personal appearance for Corwin at one of her fundraisers. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recorded a robocall for her.
Hochul had nearly every major Democratic member of Congress rally for her, but probably the biggest name she snagged was former President Clinton, who recorded a call for her as well. His message, like her campaign, focused on Medicare.
The advertisements for Corwin especially helped pull some votes away from third party candidate Jack Davis, those close to the election said, although whether it would be enough to secure Hochul a victory remains to be seen.
The race also had national implications because it exposed the divisiveness and relative lack of coordination within the Tea Party movement. The biggest Tea Party group in the area, TEA New York, endorsed Corwin, but not all Tea Party activists were on board, which sends a warning sign to Washington that they will not back candidates based on party affiliation alone.
Davis, a self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate, added an extra dimension of complication for Republicans. Although he previously ran thrice for the House seat as a Democrat, the millionaire has adopted the Tea Party agenda and managed to pull several small conservative groups to his side.
Davis' message of job-creation and manufacturing in the depression-struck district has hit a chord.
"We don't support Republicans. We don't support Democrats," said Roy Scherrer, a volunteer with the Tea Party Coalition of Western New York, a small conservative group made up of about 30 to 45 volunteers. "If Mickey Mouse was running for office against a Republican and a Democrat, I would vote for Mickey Mouse."