Sabato's Crystal Ball

Ny-26 Special Election: Mind the Debate, Forget the Decision

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst May 19th, 2011

The nation got a preview of the Democrats’ sweeping congressional election victories in 2010 when Democratic candidates pulled off victories in three close special House elections. The results were just the first of many for Democrats in the last cycle, when…

Err, wait a second, let’s start over here.

Democrats lost 63 net House seats in last year’s midterm elections. That was despite winning three closely-watched special congressional elections between the 2008 and 2010 national elections, two in upstate New York and one in western Pennsylvania.

So let’s be clear: Recent history tells us that no matter what happens in the special congressional election being held in New York next Tuesday, the result has negligible predictive value for what will happen in House elections in November 2012.

The Washington chattering classes love to over-interpret special elections, mostly because they are hungry for any action in the odd-year political offseason. It’s as if, months before the scheduled season starts, the National Football League announced that it was holding a special football game next week. Football fanatics would be ecstatic no matter the details of the game, even if instead of a Super Bowl rematch between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, it was a game between the lowly Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers. And even if, thanks to the fabulously wealthy league’s mind-boggling labor strife, the game was played with replacement players. The game might be fun to watch, and it would get a ton of media attention, but no one would assume that its outcome meant anything in the upcoming season.

This time the special election drawing outsized attention is in western New York’s 26th District, situated between Buffalo and Rochester. It is a particularly odd race — and intriguing as political theater — because it has three competitive candidates: Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, Democratic Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul and self-declared “Tea Party” candidate Jack Davis.

This really shouldn’t be a competitive race: Not only did Republican presidential nominee John McCain carry NY-26 in 2008, but so did widely-panned and thoroughly-beaten 2010 New York GOP gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino. But Davis — a wealthy, self-funding, pro-abortion rights economic protectionist whose actual party affiliation is something of a jumbled mystery — has scrambled the field, and Corwin’s campaign (and the national outside funding groups that now dominate American elections) has had to drop a lot of coin discrediting him. Davis almost assuredly won’t win, but Hochul, the Democrat, might use the chaos to topple the Republican Corwin. This is a toss-up right now.

Democrats have slammed Corwin for saying that she would have supported the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, that in effect would eventually turn Medicare into a voucher system. It now appears clear that the Republican House majority made a particularly silly political error in bringing Ryan’s budget to the House floor for a vote, considering that GOP leaders knew it had no chance of passing the Senate.* Only four House Republicans voted “no.”

The Democrats, in 2009, similarly shot themselves in the foot when they pushed through a cap-and-trade environmental policy bill. The bill never came to a vote in the Senate, so many House Democrats made a tough vote in exchange for worse than nothing: a bill that had no chance of becoming law and a vote on their records that added to their political vulnerability. Many of them no longer have to make tough votes, because they are no longer in Congress.

In the closing days of the NY-26 campaign, the Democrats are attacking Corwin for saying she “wants to essentially end Medicare.” The Republicans are responding by saying that Hochul “supports the same kinds of devastating tax increases and benefit cuts to current seniors required under the Obama-Pelosi Medicare plan.” Do we see a theme developing here? Republicans made hay last year attacking Democrats over Medicare; Democrats are repaying them in kind this cycle.

Indeed, the top policy issue of the next election outside of the economy probably will be Medicare. That’s not only apparent from the NY-26 special election, but also from Newt Gingrich’s most recent contortions, in which he called the Ryan plan “right-wing social engineering” on “Meet the Press” Sunday. He later apologized. (It is impossible to say, and this will sound like a joke but it really is not, what Gingrich’s position on the Ryan budget will be a day from now, or a week from now.) Gingrich may not be alone in running away from the Ryan budget, especially as general elections approach and Republican candidates face the full electorate and not just conservative primary voters.

In the grand scheme of things, who wins Tuesday’s NY-26 special election means little: The Republicans will still have a giant House majority even if they lose the seat and, for that matter, NY-26 may not even exist after New York’s congressional redistricting (the state lost two seats in the recent census and incumbents with the shortest congressional tenure often find their districts on the chopping block). But as a political petri dish, and as a reminder of the potential political fallout from the Republicans’ Ryan budget vote, the race is instructive.

*Correction: This post originally said that President Obama could have vetoed the Ryan budget plan that passed the House. But the actual vote in the House was for a concurrent resolution, which is essentially a budget blueprint that the president cannot veto. Obama, however, could veto an actual budget containing the policies outlined in Ryan’s proposal if Congress ever passed such a budget.