The political world will be watching western New York today.
It is there, along the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, that the stage is set for a GOP special election upset in the once-sleepy race to succeed former Rep. Chris Lee (R). Republicans are preparing themselves for a victory by Democrat Kathy Hochul over Republican Jane Corwin in a district that is among the most conservative in the state.
And fair or not, the race has been framed as the country’s first unofficial referendum on Republicans’ plan to reshape Medicare. This referendum, however, could send ripple effects deep into 2012.
Two public polls in the past four days showed Hochul leading Corwin, with third-party candidate Jack Davis drawing a small, but significant, portion of the electorate. And one of those polls suggests Medicare has emerged as a prominent issue among likely voters.
“As long as it was a three-way race with some chaos, we knew this race was going to be in play,” said Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategies Group and a pollster for the Hochul campaign. “We got a lot more chaos than we ever expected.”
That chaos, he suggests, was the House Republican budget plan to transform Medicare. Corwin has come out in favor of the measure, forced to back a controversial plan that both sides acknowledge has frightened seniors across the region and become a central theme of the whirlwind campaign.
For Republicans, however, their chaos is personified by Davis, a businessman on pace to spend $3 million from his personal fortune on a bid to play GOP spoiler. A Republican turned Democrat turned Republican again, this is Davis’ fourth run for Congress, but the first in which he will occupy the Tea Party ballot line.
“Special elections are called special for a reason, and ones that include a self-funding Democrat masquerading as a tea party candidate make for a highly unusual race,” said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Jack Davis’ presence is the only reason why a candidate as flawed as Kathy Hochul could find herself in a competitive position in this district.”
But Hochul, the Erie County clerk, has indeed become a competitor. And both sides realize the stakes are high.
A Republican loss, regardless of the true reason, would be embarrassing for the GOP at best, while giving Democrats a tested and effective strategy to target swing districts in 2012 at worst.
Volunteers and surrogates have flooded the area.
On Monday, local voters heard directly from President Bill Clinton and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), the latest political stars to make robocalls for each side.
“Hi, this is Bill Clinton. … You can count on Kathy to say no to partisan politics that would end Medicare as we know it to pay for more tax cuts for multimillionaires,” the former president said in a robocall taped for Hochul.
Republicans have in some cases already started to turn on the Corwin campaign, which had a near-limitless bank account, but saw her numbers decline steadily in recent weeks. The former businesswoman has loaned her campaign at least $2.76 million.
“With all of those resources to have gone sideways or backwards with some fluff trying to build some positives on herself was just wildly inefficient,” one Republican operative said. “She wasn’t prepared to fight the two-front war.”
That war, according to the operative, was to go after Davis, “the 800-pound gorilla,” and Hochul at the same time. In the end, that message wasn’t getting out. And a host of outside groups, including the conservative American Crossroads and the NRCC, were forced to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a race that they never expected to have to invest in.
“For the NRCC to have to come in and run a dual-message, 30-second ad where they’re trying to define Hochul and Davis, it’s too little, too late,” the operative said.
Democrats suggest that they’ve already won, regardless of the outcome tonight. They forced Republicans and their allies to devote significant resources to a race that was supposed to be an easy hold.
“To me there’s no moral victory. But that’s because I’m on the campaign,” Pollock said. “But the fact that this race is in play, the fact that Crossroads and the NRCC has had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — outspent us maybe 2-to-1 — is significant.”
Ultimately, of course, a Democratic victory in New York’s 26th district may be short-lived.
Just as was the case of former Rep. Charles Djou’s (R) 2010 three-way special election victory in Hawaii, Hochul is unlikely to win a head-to-head race in this district in the future. And there’s a strong likelihood that a Hochul victory would mean that the seat is eliminated in redistricting.
“If Hochul wins, it’s a rented seat. And it’s because this special election is an anomaly. Were it one Republican versus one Democrat, a good Republican campaign would have a huge advantage,” said Bob Honold, a Republican consultant who led the NRCC’s efforts in New York last cycle.
Honold is among a growing group of Republicans who believe the GOP nominee will lose after all the ballots are counted tonight.
“With no Jack Davis in the race and the exact same issues in play, Republicans win. And I don’t think anyone disagrees with that, not even Hochul,” he said.
The polls across the district open at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m.