Democrat Kathy Hochul, shown above, is polling ahead of Republican Jane Corwin by 42 percent to 36 percent in a special election to replace Chris Lee, who resigned after a shirtless photo he sent a potential Craigslist date was posted online. New York's 26th district is one of the most conservative in New York, and Corwin would have been expected to have an easy victory, but Hochul has been able to tie Corwin to Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare as a Tea Party candidate has siphoned off some of her support. The election is viewed as an indicator of how much House Republicans damaged themselves by voting for the Medicare plan even as their own pollsters warned that doing so could be politically toxic.
Public Policy Polling has the second poll to show Hochul in the lead ahead of the vote Tuesday. (Siena College Research Institute found Hochul to have a similar lead, ahead 42 percent to Corwin's 38 percent.) Voters now say it's the most important issue in picking whom to vote for. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait says Corwin can't blame the third party candidate, Jack Davis, for stealing votes. Pointing to the Siena poll, he writes:
The factor that really suggests Hochul's strength is the favorability rating. Hochul has a 55% favorability rating, 38% unfavorable. Corwin is just 43% favorable, 49% unfavorable. And this suggests that Jack Davis's candidacy, while hurting Corwin, is almost certainly not the decisive factor here. When a candidate with +17 favorability runs against a candidate with a -6 favorability, the +17 candidate almost always wins, spoiler or no spoiler.
Davis's declining support is one reason the New York Times' Nate Silver is less nervous about reading too much into the special election polls because such races are tricky to poll. Still, Medicare does seem to be making a difference--of the 21 percent of voters who said Medicare was their top issue in the Siena poll, 80 percent said they'd vote for Hochul. But only half of those Medicare voters are Democrats--suggesting Hochul is picking up some independents and moderate Republicans on the issue. Though it will be dangerous to read too much into the results, Silver writes, "the burden of interpretation will be with Republicans if they have a disappointing evening." And because of the upcoming presidential primaries, they'll have to decide sooner rather than later whether they want to force unity on the issue or give candidates some "wiggle room" to distance themselves from Ryan's plan.
One Republican who's carved out some of that wiggle room is Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who won his seat last year in a politically symbolic special election that many said hinged on the unpopularity of Obama's health care overhaul. Brown writes in Politico on Monday that he will not support Ryan's plan, which would give seniors vouchers to buy private insurance, because Brown worries that "as health inflation rises, the cost of private plans will outgrow the government premium support--and the elderly will be forced to pay ever higher deductibles and co-pays." And Medicare was cut in Obama's health care plan, Brown writes, putting Medicare Advantage coverage at risk.
The plan was controversial among Republicans long before angry voters confronted Republican lawmakers about it in town halls last month. GOP pollsters, no matter how they worded the question, never found public support for the plan to get more than the high-30 percent range, Politico's Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman report. GOP staffers warned leadership, "You might not want to go there." House Ways and Means chair David Camp grumbled at a fundraiser after the vote, "We shouldn't have done it," but he was "overridden." A Republican consultant explained, "The tea party itch has definitely not been scratched, so the voices who were saying, 'Let’s do this in a way that's politically survivable,' got drowned out by a kind of panic."
But Slate's Dave Weigel says all is not lost. "So they might lose a seat in western New York: So what? They have 24 seats to spare to keep the majority, and the New York seat will be crunched up by redistricting anyway." Yes, some voters might be mad about the Medicare plan, but more would if they apologize for it, Weigel says, pointing to the GOP's 2005 push to privatize Social Security. They caved on that plan, and failed to move the debate in their direction.