May 18, 2011 -- Democrats are gaining momentum in the special election in western New York to replace Republican Rep. Chris Lee, as a GOP plan to overhaul Medicare takes center stage in the surprisingly competitive race.
Observers are cautious to label the race as a referrendum on Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan and advise against reading too much into one contest, but there's no doubt the issue's prevalence in the race is making Republicans nervous.
In a district that heavily leans Republican, and where only three Democrats have won in the last century, GOP candidate Jane Corwin is in a surprise, neck-and-neck race with Democratic Erie County official Kathy Hochul.
Hochul's campaign has aggressively targeted Ryan's budget proposal that reshapes Medicare and was passed by the House last month. Her campaign has also portrayed Corwin as a Republican insider who would help, in effect, bring an end to Medicare.
"I think she [Hochul] has been more agressive on the Medicare issue than Corwin, whose mostly been attacking [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi and the health care bill, which a lot of voters perceive to be last year's issue," said Dave Wasserman, House editor and political analyst at the Cook Political Report. However, "a Hochul victory would not prove that Democrats could replicate the results using the Medicare issue across every district."
But behind the scenes, Republicans are increasingly anxious about a plan that has yet to gain full support even among the GOP caucus.
"Some Republicans have realized within the last couple of months that the Ryan budget was not politically smart. There are some who have always believed that," Wasserman said.
The Cook Report this week moved the race to a Toss Up. The Rothenberg Political Report moved it to a Toss Up/Tilt Democratic, noting that with only a week to go, Hochul looked well-positioned to pull off a significant upset.
Corwin has taken a heavy hit from self-funded, self-titled Tea Party candidate Jack Davis, who's had three unsuccessful runs for Congress as a Democrat.
Hochul's attacks "apparently have made it difficult for Corwin to attract disaffected Davis voters," the Rothenberg Political Report stated.
Advertisements funded by conservative group American Crossroads -- which funneled $350,000 in the special election -- and personal appearances by Republican bigwigs like House Speaker John Boehner have helped temper down the numbers for Davis.
But his message has struck a chord with many independents and conservatives, even though most of the notable Tea Party groups in the region have endorsed Corwin.
"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 of about 30 to 45 volunteers. "We are endorsing this man because he is a man of integrity and honesty, and he knows how to run a business, how to balance a budget."
Davis is expected to get less than 20 percent of the vote on election day, but even that could be enough to derail Corwin's chances. Hochul would need Davis to get at least 15 percent of the vote to win the election, according to a Democratic insider.
The Republican assemblywoman has also stumbled in the high-profile race -- her chief of staff Michael Mallia provoked Davis by following him with a camera and questioning him about why he wouldn't participate in a debate -- and local newspapers that pointed out that some of her claims against Hochul have been bogus.
The May 24 special election is being held to replace Republican Rep. Lee, who resigned after a shirtless photo of him was leaked to the press by a woman he met, and flirted with, on Craigslist.