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Republicans Face No-Win Situation in New York

Republican strategists are now praying that they never, ever have another special election in New York state.

First they failed to win a 2009 special election to take back Democrat Kirsten’s Gillibrand’s open seat (which they won back last year). Then, later that year, they lost the open seat in New York’s 23rd district, which had been represented by Republican John McHugh.

And now, with the special election in New York’s 26th district just five days away, Democrat Kathy Hochul has at least an even-money chance of swiping a seat Democrats never figured they could win.

The problem for Republicans is that even if GOP Assemblywoman Jane Corwin comes back to win the special election in a district that was Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) best in the state — a district he carried by 6 points over Barack Obama — nobody will care.

“If we win,” says one Republican following the race closely, “the media will treat the outcome as irrelevant. If we lose, it will be seen as cataclysmic for us.”

Indeed, if Hochul wins, even in a three-way race, it will be great news for Democrats, who will use the victory not only to talk about Medicare, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget and their own momentum, but also to recruit candidates around the country and raise funds.

And Democrats will have a right to brag, given the district’s fundamentals and the cash that Corwin and Republican groups have poured into the race.

Drawing big conclusions about special elections is a dangerous business.

Pennsylvania Democrat Harris Wofford’s 1991 special election Senate victory over ex-Gov. Dick Thornburgh (R) was a good indicator of the Democrats’ strong 1992 showing. But last year’s Democratic victory to fill a vacant House seat in Pennsylvania turned out to be a terrible predictor of what would happen in November.

As in the 2010 special election in Hawaii’s 1st district, won by a Republican in a three-way race in May but by a Democrat less than six months later, the multicandidate race in the Empire State certainly complicates things — both for Corwin and for political analysts trying to understand the meaning of a possible Hochul victory.

Corwin started off being squeezed by Hochul on the left and by wealthy, self-proclaimed Tea Party nominee Jack Davis on the right, taking fire from both sides.

Republicans knew they couldn’t attack both opponents effectively at the same time, so they went after Davis first in order to peel off conservatives initially attracted to his style and message of change.

But GOP attacks on Davis, while absolutely necessary, allowed Hochul to define herself and Corwin, so when Republican and independent voters eventually left Davis (after the GOP attacks started to take their toll on him), they didn’t go to Corwin nearly in the proportion that Republican strategists hoped they would.

“Democrats in upstate New York now think all Republicans are right-wingers, while the Republican brand in New York is not good enough to get conservative votes automatically,” one GOP observer told me recently in explaining Corwin’s problems in attracting Republican voters.

With Democrats lining up behind Hochul and Republicans voters split, Hochul has found herself with a chance of winning.

Corwin and National Republican Congressional Committee ads have hit Hochul on raising taxes and have tried to tie her to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to bring Republican voters home. The initial results of that tactic were mixed, but some GOP insiders hope the Pelosi message will have greater traction in the final week of the campaign.

Still, even some Republicans acknowledge that the California Democrat simply doesn’t have the visibility that she once did and that GOP control of the House makes Pelosi a less threatening figure.

So far Corwin, a conservative state Assemblywoman, hasn’t received much blame for her campaign’s difficulties, though some point to her upscale style in arguing that she hasn’t connected with some voters. On the other hand, there is plenty of griping about the campaign’s strategy and TV spots.

Some Republicans are unhappy that her television ads don’t have her talking more directly to voters — a tactic often employed when voters are angry at politicians and suspicious about their motives — and they complain that her early ads didn’t present her as someone who was angry and willing to shake up the system.

“Her early spots made her look like a politician at a time when there is still a lot of anti-politician feeling out there,” a Republican operative said.

Democrats believe that Medicare was at least a partial explanation for Hochul’s surge, though they are realistic about her chances of victory given the district’s bent.

“Hochul’s numbers started rising only when she started running her Medicare ad,” insists one Democrat who argues Corwin hasn’t answered the attacks effectively.

Republicans tend to dismiss the idea that a strong Hochul showing would reflect the potency of her efforts to connect Corwin to the Ryan budget and Ryan’s proposal to dramatically change Medicare. But even if they are right, Democrats can take heart from the fact that Obama’s shadow didn’t destroy Hochul’s candidacy before the race even began.

GOP insiders are now hoping to avoid an embarrassing loss, keenly aware that a Corwin victory won’t give them momentum. Democrats, on the other hand, though afraid that Hochul may fall just short, figure that they have nothing to lose.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.