This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Just six months ago, Republicans had won control of the House and picked up 63 seats, with six of them—the most from any state—coming from New York. Then, on February 9, Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., swiftly resigned his 26th District seat after a gossip site posted shirtless photos the married lawmaker had sent in response to a Craigslist personal ad.
As voters head to the polls on Tuesday in western New York, the race to replace him between state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, the Republican, and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, the Democrat, has become a tight contest that has forced outside groups and the national parties to spend millions. The race has closed thanks to Jack Davis, a third-party candidate running on a tea party line, and to relentless Democratic attacks on Corwin for supporting the GOP proposal to overhaul Medicare.
The latest nonpartisan public poll, a Siena College survey released on Saturday, showed Hochul taking the lead over Corwin, 42 percent to 38 percent, with support for Davis down to 12 percent.
Furor over the spending cuts recommended by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., including sweeping changes to Medicare, has been the driving issue in this race and has turned it into a nail-biter. Hochul points to April 15 as the defining day in her campaign—the day the House GOP caucus overwhelmingly voted to approve the Budget Committee’s plan that would alter Medicare for future seniors, essentially giving vouchers to those now under age 55 to pay for private health insurance.
Democrats recognized the potency of the issue early. Hochul kept pressing Corwin for her position on Medicare in the days leading up to the vote. When Corwin announced that she supported Ryan’s plan, Hochul pounced and began airing an attack ad. Since then, it’s been her lead message at every campaign stop.
Corwin responded last week with a TV ad clarifying her position, and she has been stressing that she doesn’t think the Ryan plan is perfect and wouldn’t support vouchers. But the damage may have been done. In the Siena poll, a plurality identified Medicare as the biggest issue in the campaign; 74 percent of those voters support Hochul. She’s also leading Corwin with voters over age 55 by an 8-point margin.
Republicans were more than familiar with Davis, a wealthy manufacturer who ran as the Democratic congressional nominee in 2004 and 2006; he came within 4 points of winning the seat in his second bid. Each time, Davis made opposition to free-trade agreements almost his only issue. This year was no different—except that when Lee resigned, Davis interviewed for the Republican nomination instead.
Passed over in favor of Corwin, Davis began gathering petitions to get on the ballot as an independent and declared himself a tea party candidate. One problem, though, was that local and national tea party groups repudiated him. The vast majority endorsed Corwin.
Republicans cite the presence of Davis—a millionaire who has underwritten his campaign with $2.6 million of his own money—as the reason for the close contest. But his poll numbers are down after a barrage of attacks reminding voters of his past Democratic affiliation. And although he is still drawing slightly more support from Republicans than from Democrats, defectors from his camp haven’t uniformly migrated to Corwin.
When a contest that was expected to be a sleeper turned surprisingly tight, outside money began pouring into the race.
Republican-aligned groups have spent significantly more than their Democratic counterparts. The conservative group American Crossroads first sounded the alarm, spending more than $700,000 in the race on behalf of Corwin. The National Republican Congressional Committee followed suit, throwing in nearly $425,000 for ads attacking both of her opponents. And that’s in addition to the $2.7 million that Corwin’s spent on the race herself.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put $266,000 into the race, pumping up the Medicare message, and the newly formed outside Democratic group House Majority PAC has bought ads. Labor has also been working heavily on behalf of Hochul.
This article appears in the May 24, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.