About the only thing that Democrats did wrong in the special election campaign for New York’s 26th Congressional District was to let expectations get out of hand. As voters go to the polls today in a very red district that rolls across farmland from the Buffalo suburbs to the Rochester suburbs, there is a real sense that Democrat Kathy Hochul could prevail over Republican Jane Corwin.
That would be something of a miracle, and the miracle-maker would be Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican whose budget proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program (or, if you prefer, an insufficiently supported premium-support program) gave Hochul the one issue she needed to challenge Corwin.
Let there be no mistake: All the spin in the world will not change the fact that this contest has already been the staging ground for a repudiation of the Ryan budget. The headline this morning on the Buffalo News’s Web site says it all: “Medicare issue defines the campaign.”
The truth is that even if Hochul loses but comes close in this, one of the most Republican districts in the country, the verdict will be that the GOP ought to race away from Ryan’s budget as fast as it can. No Medicare issue, no contest. (Hochul also successfully made an issue of Ryan’s support for tax cuts for the wealthy, which aren’t popular, either.) This one should not even have been close. Even if Democrats were to retake the House next year, they would almost certainly never carry a loyal Republican district of this sort.
That’s where expectations are a problem for the Democrats. With Hochul edging narrowly ahead in the late polls, Republicans will now be able to cheer even the slimmest of Corwin victory margins. That will be useful to the Republican leadership, but it still won’t solve their Medicare problem. Oh yes, and if Republicans do lose, count on them to blame third-party candidate Jack Davis for splitting the anti-Democratic vote. That spin won’t work, given that Democrats got only about a quarter of vote in this district in 2010; the big swing to Hochul will be the story.
Here’s the other thing to watch for: the old “enthusiasm gap,” which was lethal to Democrats in 2010. Conservatives had energy last year, progressives were lethargic. Already, the enthusiasm gap seems to have shifted the Democrats way as progressives are mobilizing against the GOP’s quite radical anti-government agenda, at both the national and state level. Again: If the Republicans can’t get their vote out in a district such as this, they face real difficulties next year. That will be the one legitimate part of the GOP spin if Corwin pulls this out: It will be a sign that at least part of the conservative base can still be mobilized in a pinch. That’s scant comfort given the thrust of the campaign, but it’s something for Republicans to hang on to.
One other thing, because it will be lost in all the talk about this election’s national implications: Hochul ran a very good campaign on issues other than Medicare. In particular, she and the Democrats learned a thing or two from none other than Scott Brown, 2010’s premier special-election anti-establishment campaigner.
Recall that Brown was helped in his special-election victory in Massachusetts by a backlash against the Bay State’s government, including both the state legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick. Patrick recovered his standing and won reelection relatively easily last fall. But in January 2010, running against State House politicians was a very smart thing to do, as Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi pointed out at the time. This was especially true since Brown’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley, was a long-time statewide elected official.
Besides tying Corwin to Ryan’s plan, Hochul also tied Corwin, a member of the state Assembly, to past failures in New York’s state government, of which there have been quite a few. And in a move that was probably helpful in winning over independents and dissident Republicans, Hochul touted the fact that she opposed policies supported by two past Democratic governors, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.
It’s worth noting that one person not mentioned in this anti-Albany ad is the state’s current Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Hochul makes no effort to distance herself from him because Cuomo’s recent budget, which included heavy spending cuts, is popular among Republicans, and Cuomo is enjoying very high approval ratings. One of the last Democrats to visit the district on Hochul’s behalf was Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Robert J. Duffy, the popular former mayor of Rochester. Even in a race with huge national implications, some politics is still local.
Yes, pundits love to over-interpret special elections. But here’s a test as to whether this one really mattered: Watch how many Senate Republicans vote against the Ryan budget when it comes to the floor this week. And watch how quickly House Republicans try to finesse Ryan’s plan. Win or lose, Kathy Hochul has changed the direction of Washington’s debate.