Between general elections every two years, there are comparatively few electoral contests that can give a sense of the national mood. To be sure, there are off-year gubernatorial contests, a host of mayoral elections, and local races of all stripes. But at the national level, the lone electoral pulse-taking is the occasional special congressional election to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives, or on rare occasion, the Senate.
That makes the special election held in the New York 26th District on May 24 especially noteworthy. Not only was it the first race that actually filled an open seat in the 112th Congress, but the result produced a change in party hands, with the historically Republican seat in upstate New York switching to the Democrats.
Does the outcome represent a trend in the making for 2012?
Democrats certainly think so. The seat came open in February when Republican Rep. Christopher Lee abruptly resigned his seat after a shirtless photo of the married congressman appeared on the internet. And at first, there was little reason to believe that Republicans would not retain the district that lies between Buffalo and Rochester. The district was only one of four in the Empire State that favored John McCain in the 2008 presidential balloting and just one of three New York districts that elected a Republican representative the same year.
But Democrat Kathy Hochul, the Erie County clerk, not only won last month’s special election. But she did so with an issue, Medicare, that Democrats are hopeful they can take national in 2012. Specifically, she took aim at the House Republican budget plan that would gradually replace the popular government-run Medicare program with a voucher program. An election-eve poll showed Medicare to be the top issue in the race, named by about 20% of voters.
Both parties and their allies were engaged in the New York 26th. Former President Bill Clinton taped a phone message on behalf of Hochul emphasizing the Medicare issue, while House Speaker John Boehner came to the district for the GOP nominee, state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin. Total spending on the race is estimated to have surpassed $6 million.
Republicans, though, have argued that Corwin was a victim of circumstance and that the race in the New York 26th was of no national consequence. They blamed the outcome on the presence of a third candidate, wealthy businessman Jack Davis, who ran on the “Tea Party” line. Republicans complained that Davis’ “tea party” candidacy was a ruse, since he had been the Democratic congressional nominee in 2004 and 2006. Ultimately, he took 9% of the special election vote, compared to 47% for Hochul and 43% for Corwin. Hochul’s share was almost identical to the 46% share that Barack Obama garnered in losing the district in the 2008 presidential election.
Nor were many Republicans very complimentary of Corwin’s campaign. She did not make a full-throated defense of the House budget plan, instead deploring what she saw as Democratic “Mediscare” tactics. GOP officials also emphasized the influence of local factors, including the fact that Hochul was generally considered more likeable than Corwin. By next November, they contend, Republican candidates will be much better versed on how to fend off Democratic attacks on Medicare.
Yet what may be the main takeaway from this particular special election was that regardless of the long-term saliency of the Medicare issue, it did provide Democrats with the means to go on the offensive for the first time since 2008. And that has provided a big lift for Democratic spirits nationally.