Earlier this week, voters in New York’s 26th Congressional District had a special election to fill the seat vacated by shirtless prettyboy Chris Lee. In a startlingly large upset, Democrat Kathy Hochul won despite the Republicans’ huge enrollment advantage. Here’s the scoop on what happened.
First, a bit of background. NY-26 is a solidly Republican, mostly rural district that stretches from the suburbs of Buffalo to the suburbs of Rochester in western New York. It covers a huge geographic area by New York standards, almost 70 miles north to south and 70 miles east to west. And it’s the reddest district in the state, voting 55% for George Bush in 2004 and a horrifying 62% for Carl Paladino in his gubernatorial bid last year. (I can tell you from bitter, bitter experience working on a voter education campaign against Chris Lee that Democratic candidates are a tough sell to many of these voters, and it’s a lot of legwork and miles on the car. A LOT.)
Despite all of these odds, and the grim picture that polls painted at the start of the campaign two months ago, Democrat Kathy Hochul won the (mostly) three-way race against Republican Jane Corwin and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis 47-43-9, with fringe jokester candidate Ian Murphy picking up close to 1% on the Green Party line. So what happened?
Most obviously, perennial loser Jack Davis acted as a spoiler candidate, dividing the conservative vote. Davis first emerged in 2004, a Republican running on the Democratic ticket. He was a millionaire willing to put up his own money in the race, and more importantly, was willing to take on Tom Reynolds, the powerful chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Local Dems were just glad that anybody was willing to take him on. Davis lost and went on to run for Congress again in 2006 and 2008, first with Dem support again and then as a wild card. Like it or not, the U.S. has a two-party system, and third party candidates rarely win. When they do gain enough support, like the well-known Davis managed to do, they often act as spoilers. That was definitely the case here. If all of the Davis voters had pulled the lever* for Corwin instead, that margin would have been enough to send her to Washington.
Even without a spoiler candidate, Hochul got way more of the vote than anyone would have suspected. Why? First off, she’s pretty popular in Erie County, which makes up about a third of the Congressional district. In her tenure as county clerk, she actually managed to make the DMV more efficient and streamlined the tax collection system, which goes a long way to making people happy. (The clerk is a pretty uncontroversial position, and not much was mentioned of her history in the county legislature.) Politically, she’s a pretty conservative Democrat. Her radio ads proudly touted her vocal 2007 stand against then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.** While she supports lefty issues like marriage equality and women’s choice, she’s relatively fiscally conservative for a Democrat.
What swung the special election in NY-26 more than anything else, though, was Medicare. It’s a rural district, an old district, a district that’s hurting economically. And what did in Jane Corwin even more than Jack Davis was her support of the Ryan budget, which would gut the Medicare program. Hochul attacked Corwin for trying to leave the country’s elderly out in the cold, and it snowballed from there. My hardcore Republican grandparents who live in NY-26 couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Corwin, and they were previously big fans of her party-line work as a state assemblymember. Hochul hammered the issue into the ground with mailers, phone calls, and television and radio ads, and it’s clear from the results that Medicare is an issue that the Republicans will need to reconcile as we move in to the 2012 races.
Was the special election in NY-26 typical? No. The campaign cycle was shortened dramatically, and the three major candidates spent $6 million between them in just a two-month span. That was enough to say a lot of words in very little space. And I think this warning will have the Republicans scrambling to come up with a real response for the next full campaign cycle. But be sure that unexpected Democratic win is a signal of interesting things to come.
*Well, we don’t have lever machines anymore, but I don’t think that phrase is going anywhere soon, at least not among political junkies like me who’ve been using it for so long.
**Allow me a brief editorial comment. UGH UGH UGH.