One could almost hear the collective gasps and subsequent excuses among Republicans from Buffalo, New York to Washington DC when the news came Tuesday night that Republican Jane Corwin was edged out in the nationally-watched special House election in New York’s 26th District.
In losing to liberal Democrat Kathy Hochul by a margin of about 47% to 43%, State Asssemblywoman Corwin lost the Buffalo-area district that had been firmly in Republican hands since the late Jack Kemp won his first term in Congress there back in 1970.
But in so doing, the GOP got a good and alarming look at what to expect in 2012. Inarguably, the spirited Democratic effort to link Corwin to the GOP budget plan crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wisc.) helped make a cliff-hanger out of a race that should have been a “slam dunk” for the GOP.
In speeches and debates, Erie County Clerk Hochul almost always brought up her opposition to the Ryan plan, which Corwin endorsed early on. Hochul’s television salvos slammed Corwin for supporting a plan which, the Democrat charged, “would essentially end Medicare.”
Hochul drew national dollars from liberal groups hoping that her triumph in GOP turf would be a fatal blow to the Ryan plan. The New York Working Families Party, whose ballot line Hochul also carried and which is an offspring of the community organizing collosus ACORN, sent out a nationwide mailing proclaiming“[t]his race can and should be a referendum on the Ryan budget.” In appealing for left-wing funding for Hochul, the Working Families mailing said: “[T]he Republicans expect to win this race, but if we can upset their apple cart, it would be a huge deal across the nation.”
Corwin, who also carried the ballot lines of the Conservative and Independence Parties, hit back at Hochul, but, critics said, she was responding too late. She emphasized her support for Medicare for those 55 and over (for whom which the Ryan plan leaves the current Medicare structure intact) and her opposition to Obamacare (A Siena University poll a week before the voting that showed Hochul leading Corwin by a margin of 42% to 38% also showed voters districtwide opposing Obamacare by a margin of 50% to 12%).
Helping the GOP drive home these points were were Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York and expert on health care, Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express, and Jim Martin of the Sixty Plus Seniors Association.
But It Wasn’t Just Ryan-Bashing
But there were other reasons for the tightness of the race beside from the attacks on the Ryan plan.
“Democrats will crow that that the Ryan Medicare plan put NY-26 in play, but as Tip O’Neil pointed out, ‘All politics is local.’,” said historian and author David Pietrusza, who knows all things New York, “This race was a perfect storm of three local situations. First, the well-funded Jack Davis pseudo-Tea Party challenge. Two, Kathy Hochul remained remarkably personally popular. Third, and most critical, was the Corwin’s camps remarkably inept attempt at videotaping Jack Davis. There was no need to paint him as eccentric.”
Pietrusza was referring to the candidacy of multimillionaire Jack Davis on the “Tea Party,” who got about 8% of the vote that many believe would otherwise gone to Corwin.
Because of his ballot designation and outsider status, Davis, a Democrat who was actually the Democratic candidate in the 26th in ’06, was taking votes of conservative independents from Republican Corwin. As polls showed the race tightening, local tea party groups strongly denounced Davis and the 527 known as American Crossroads ran $350,000 in TV spots to attack the so-called “Tea Party” nominee.
At one point in the campaign, Corwin’s chief of staff in the legislature followed Davis. After an obvious (and successful)attempt to incite the 78-year-old contender, Davis told the staffer: “Do you want [to get] punched out?” The incident was widely condemned in the press and there were calls in the local press for Corwin to fire her top aide, who is on the state payroll.
In the end, the “Stop Ryan” blitz and the Davis renegade candidacy proved more potent than Corwin’s far-superior cash resources. Along with the efforts of American Crossroads and the National Republican Congressional Committee (which spent an estimated $500,000 on TV ads), the businesswoman-candidate herself pumped more than $1.6 million of her own wealth into the campaign in its closing days.
For Republicans nationally, the results from NY-26 bring anticipation that future attacks will be grounded in “Medi-scare” and focused on the Ryan plan. Perhaps the best post-script on this race is the title of a timeless novel by H.G. Welles: The Shape of Things to Come.