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After N.Y. Special Election, GOP Tries to Regain Footing

House Republicans are calling their special election loss in upstate New York this week a wake-up call that came with enough time for the party to recover before the 2012 campaigns.

Rank-and-file Members complained Wednesday that the Conference has lost sight of jobs, the issue that voters care most about, and flailed on a host of messaging strategies that failed to penetrate the conservative electorate in New York’s 26th district.

Further, GOP Members are worried about future elections and the erosion of the historic gains the party made in 2010.

“There’s no doubt that special election causes me, and I think several of my colleagues, to reflect on what we’re doing here in the House,” Rep. Lee Terry said. “You don’t lose a very Republican seat without putting in some thought of why.”

The Nebraska Republican said all GOP leaders are to blame for the outcome Tuesday, when Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin 47 percent to 43 percent. He questioned the focus at the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), and acknowledged the party’s stance on Medicare reform, detailed in Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) sweeping plan, has hurt the party.

“We have a bigger question within our Conference. I think we can sit here and debate the impact of the Medicare vote, but we can’t win a special election,” Terry said. “There is something that we’re doing wrong at the NRCC, where we lose almost every special election.”

The New York race was the first competitive special of the 2012 cycle. Since 2008, Democrats have won seven out of eight competitive special elections.

Republican leaders pushed back against any criticism of the handling of the special election and warned against drawing broader conclusions based on the outcome.

Ryan, the architect of the Medicare plan, also sought to turn the message around on Democrats.

“We have a year and a half for the truth to come out, and when it does, the American people are going to know that they’ve been lied to. And I think we will be doing very well,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday.

Republican aides pointed to a competitive special election in Pennsylvania, which Democrats won last May, as evidence that one victory often does not translate to bigger election gains. Roughly six months after that win, Democrats lost control of the House. 

Republicans also argued that the influence of  national operatives was limited, in part, by Corwin’s deep pockets.

“One of the problems in a special election when you have a self-funder is that it limits your ability to tell them what to do,” a high-level NRCC official said.

Freshman Rep. Michael Grimm blamed the election loss largely on the presence of third-party candidate Jack Davis, but he conceded that Medicare messaging played a part in the Republican’s defeat.

“I think the Democrats messaging on health care has been effective in the sense that it’s very easy to say, ‘Republicans want to kill Grandma’ or ‘Republicans are destroying Medicare,’” Grimm said. “It’s cute; it makes headlines; but it doesn’t address the problem.

The New York Republican, who doesn’t regret voting for overhauling Medicare, said the party must get better at making its argument.

“At least the Republicans had the courage to put something on the table — maybe not perfect, certainly open to discussion — I’m willing to hear all sides and all options,” he said. “To do nothing, the status quo is not an option because it is going broke.”

More than two weeks before Election Day, NRCC internal polling showed that Corwin was trailing by double digits. The committee knew the race was lost days before voters went to the polls, and Republican leaders braced their Members for the loss during Tuesday’s Conference meeting.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also announced leaders would put forward a new jobs package that will be unveiled at a press conference today. But leading up to the unveiling, GOP aides grumbled that the new jobs agenda was hastily put together and might not be a strong enough response to the concerns of constituents back home.

GOP leadership aides maintain committee chairmen have stayed focused on the issue of jobs and that after the fog of the New York special election clears, the party will be back on track.

“Look, this is a wake-up call for Members,” a GOP leadership aide said of the special election, adding that “if you ever want a wake-up call, you want it 18 months before the election.”

Republicans have to defend a large number of seats held by vulnerable freshmen next year. With so many seats on the line, the aide said, “you can expect to see an internal debate as to whether or not Republicans should try to change the message or challenge Democrats head on. We can do a better job at both, frankly.”

Democrats, meanwhile, spent most of Wednesday gloating over New York and taking a victory lap on behalf of their Medicare message. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) declared that Medicare is “the No. 1 issue in that district, as it is all over the country.”

Democrats asserted the election was a referendum on Ryan’s plan, which failed to pass the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.

“I think it shows that the public doesn’t want to get rid of Medicare and all but four of the [House] Republicans are on record saying they would,” Rep. Robert Andrews said.

The New Jersey Democrat also said he believes the issue will continue to resonate beyond the New York special election.

“I think it’s a very defining issue in 2012 and it is going to serve us well,” he said. “It’s less about the special. It’s more about the issue. This is a vote they are going to wish they could make go away, but they can’t.”

New York Rep. Gary Ackerman agreed.

“I think the Republicans have boxed themselves in,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “I think the Republicans are looking at this the wrong way and I think the party’s been taken over by ideologues that are pushing an agenda that is not really comfortable with the American people.”

John Stanton and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.