Are the Democrats' Prospects Improving?

In a special election last night, Democrat Kathy Hochul upset Republican Jane Corwin to become New York’s 26th District’s representative in Congress. The race had been widely seen—and was treated by the national party organizations—as an indicator of the overall political climate and a test of the parties’ messages. The result suggests that just six months after their resounding defeat in the midterm elections, Democrats’ prospects have improved dramatically.

In particular, the elections suggests that the Republican plan to privatize Medicare and cut Medicare benefits is costing them. The special election was to replace Chris Lee (R-NY), who stepped down after Gawker published shirtless photos the married congressman had sent a woman he met on Craigslist. At first, it seemed like Corwin, a state assemblywoman, would win easily, since the district had been held by Republicans since the 1960s and was one of just four New York districts to go to John McCain in 2008. But Hochul, the County Clerk of Erie County, made her opposition to Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal to privatize Medicare as part of his budget plan a key part of her platform, and her message seems to have resonated in a district with a large elderly population. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel (D-NY) bragged that the Ryan plan had already “cost the Republicans $3.4 million and a seat in Congress.”

Special elections are special, and we should be careful not to read too much into this one result. The next elections are still nearly 18 months away, and western New York is hardly representative of the rest of the country. Corwin may have lost votes to third party candidate Jack Davis, a self-proclaimed Tea Partier (who also ran in the district as a Democrat in 2006). And there is reason to think that Hochul may simply have been a better candidate than Jane Corwin. Nevertheless Nate Silver argues that Hochul’s four point victory in a such a strongly Republican district is telling. After all, cutting Medicare as a way to reduce the deficit polls poorly in swing states. As E.J. Dionne says, Hochul’s victory has to worry Republicans in swing districts. And it is likely inspire more competitive candidates to run as Democrats in the next election, since the Democrats' chances of retaking the House are starting to look up.

Photo credit: Daniel Case

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