BUFFALO, N.Y.—It’s the most radioactive issue in all of politics right now. Just ask Newt Gingrich.
The newly minted presidential candidate had to retreat after an appearance last Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press in which he dismissed a plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to revamp Medicare as “right-wing social engineering.”
Yet Gingrich’s warnings about the proposal’s political impact may look prophetic if the GOP can’t hold one of the most Republican congressional districts in New York in a May 24 special election.
The suddenly white-hot race in the 26th District began on February 9, when photos of a shirtless Rep. Chris Lee surfaced from a Craigslist personal ad. The married, two-term House member resigned that evening. But the most critical day in the campaign came six weeks later, when House Republicans on April 15 overwhelmingly voted for a Ryan budget that would replace the existing Medicare program for those under 55 with health insurance vouchers.
Democrats, who already saw the vote as a potential game-changer in their plan to win back the House next year, suddenly found themselves with a chance to test the issue’s saliency 18 months early. The debate over Medicare has come to dominate the contest for a seat that even Republicans acknowledge is in play.
Republicans insist that the race is close not because of their budget plan but because of third-party candidate Jack Davis. He petitioned his way onto the ballot after losing the Republican nomination to state Assembly member Jane Corwin and listed himself as a tea party candidate, even though he has run three times for the seat before as a Democrat and national tea party groups are opposing him.
But the Democratic candidate, Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, has made the Medicare debate the central issue of her campaign. In the days before the House vote on the Ryan proposal, she successfully pushed Corwin to declare her support for it. Even after embracing the plan from the House Budget Committee chairman, Corwin didn’t do much to defend it; she instead stressed the GOP’s message about creating jobs and cutting the federal deficit, a message that helped the party win 63 House seats last year.
Democrats are investing heavily in defeating Jane Corwin.
Her decision might have seemed a safe strategy in territory that, on paper, is not Democrat-friendly. The 26th District is one of only four in New York that supported GOP nominee John McCain in the 2008 presidential election: He carried 56 percent of the vote there. But almost one-sixth of the population is older than 65—a proportion that’s higher than the national average. This factor appears to be propelling a late surge for Hochul.
The only nonpartisan public survey in the race, a Siena Research Institute poll taken two weeks after the House Medicare vote, showed Corwin just 5 points ahead of Hochul. Among voters age 55 and older (the dividing line that pollsters provided), the survey showed Hochul leading 36 percent to 33 percent. That result was within the poll’s 4.5 percentage point margin of error, but it indicated vulnerability for Corwin in a demographic that has trended sharply Republican in recent years. Equally important, the survey found that 59 percent of voters opposed cutting Medicare and Social Security to reduce the deficit. Eighty percent of Hochul’s supporters were in that category. But the poll showed that 40 percent of Corwin supporters also opposed cutting entitlement spending, a worrisome sign for the Republican.
The Siena poll was fielded just as Hochul became the first Democratic challenger this cycle to air a TV attack ad that focuses on the Republican Medicare plan. Subsequent internal polls show Davis’s support dropping and voters focusing on the two major-party choices. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Davis’s defectors aren’t predominantly switching to Corwin but are splitting their support much more evenly than expected.
Hoping to send a signal on Medicare, Democrats are investing heavily in Hochul. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put $266,000 into the race, and the new independent-expenditure group House Majority PAC is airing Medicare-themed ads. Labor groups are mobilizing, too. “This election, in a sense, will be the vote heard ’round the world, or certainly ’round the country, because everyone will look and say, ‘Is Kathy’s view on Medicare the more acceptable view or is her opponent’s?’ ” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who spent Sunday campaigning with Hochul. “And in a district like this which is heavily Republican, the fact that this is a neck-and-neck race shows, I think, that our view of Medicare … is where to go.”
Although Republicans say the contest is a fluke with a third-party spoiler, their actions belie that nonchalance. The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent nearly $425,000 on the race. American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-founded independent-expenditure group, so far has pumped in more than $700,000. And Ryan himself, in a fundraising e-mail to his supporters on Corwin’s behalf, framed the election as a vote on his plan for reducing the deficit.
Forced to respond, Corwin has shifted to defending the Ryan proposal as an effort to maintain “the benefits for people who are 55 and older” and to protect “the plan for people who are younger.”
Both parties can wrangle over whether it’s valid to extract a larger message on Medicare from a special election that will feature low turnout and multiple candidates. But the race has provided a sneak preview of the national debate over the issue, with both sides forced to stake out positions and test messages that are likely to resound through November 2012. If Hochul wins on such Republican turf, Gingrich might not find himself quite so lonely in GOP circles the next time he raises questions about the Ryan blueprint.
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This article appears in the May 21, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.