The race to succeed the chest-baring, Craigslist-dabbling congressman Chris Lee in upstate New York has not received much national notice. Events in Abbottobad have crowded out other stories. But Democrats are excited by a Siena College poll suggesting the possibility of an upset in the May 24 election.
New York’s 26th congressional district stretches from the suburbs east of Buffalo to the suburbs west of Rochester — a mostly rural, white, and Republican part of New York. As Michael Barone notes in The Almanac of American Politics, “People speak not in the pungent accents of New York City but in flat Midwestern tones.” The 26th gave 55 percent of its vote to George W. Bush in 2004 and 52 percent to McCain in 2008.
Special elections can be like out-of-town openings for Broadway shows — a time to test-market themes and slogans. Though the race began with two attractive, barely distinguishable women candidates running boilerplate ads (“She’s a fighter!” “She’s for jobs!”), it has become something else. The Democrat, Kathy Hochul, though claiming to favor smaller government and deficit reduction, has seized upon the Ryan budget and Medicare. In a recent ad featuring ominous music and dark tones, she asserts that the Ryan budget, which Republican Jane Corwin supports, would “end Medicare,” and that “seniors would have to pay $6,400 more for the same coverage.” The narrator continues, “The budget Jane Corwin supports would cut taxes for the very rich” and “overwhelmingly benefit the rich.”
The Siena poll found Corwin leading by only 36 percent to Hochul’s 31 percent in a district where Republicans have a seven-point registration advantage. There are two other candidates on the ballot as well: Jack Davis, often referred to as the “Tea Party” candidate, and Ian Murphy, the leftist activist who impersonated David Koch in a phone call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and who is running on the Green party ticket. Davis is polling at 23 percent and Murphy at 1 percent.
So is this a case of conservative purists spoiling a race for a solid Republican? Not at all. Davis, a millionaire, has run for Congress on three previous occasions on the Democratic ticket. This time around, he didn’t receive the endorsement of any Tea Party groups. But New York permits third-party candidates to choose their ballot line if they collect the requisite signatures. Davis hired a signature-gathering firm to qualify for the ballot and is now buying ads to tout his favorite themes: opposing free trade and cracking down on offshore tax evasion. He supported Barack Obama in 2008 and favors abortions throughout the nine months of pregnancy.
So the race actually contains three Democrats and one Republican. But that Siena poll is unsettling. For two liberal candidates to be polling at a combined 54 percent in a comfortable Republican district is not encouraging. And while there are polls suggesting that western New Yorkers support the Ryan budget, it’s not entirely clear that voters are all that conversant with the details.
So far, Jane Corwin, who has only been in electoral politics for three years, seems to be faltering in response to the Hochul attacks. She’s released a response that attacks Hochul’s record but fails to correct the false charges in the Hochul ad about “ending” Medicare, forcing seniors to pay an extra $6,400 for the same coverage, and approving “tax cuts for the rich.” Meanwhile, she’s also spent precious dollars running ads undermining Davis’s “Tea Party” identification. Corwin comes across as a sensible Republican who supports private enterprise, worries about deficits, and opposes Obamacare. But her inexperience is showing. She doesn’t emphasize economic growth or offer a plan to boost employment. Hochul is more convincing on camera, and her ads are far sharper.
This is just one race. But if the Democrat manages an upset by misrepresenting what Republicans are advocating for Medicare, the Republican party may be spooked. Other Republicans may attempt to retreat from Medicare reform just as Democrats attempted to back away from Obamacare in 2010.
It’s always easier to tell voters a comforting lie than the discomfiting truth. Democrats, starting with President Obama, have decided to sell the fable that Medicare can be preserved forever in its present form and paid for by taxes on the rich. That is false. It is not a matter of saving Medicare versus giving tax cuts to the rich. If Medicare is not reformed, it will devour the federal budget. Democrats know this, but they are choosing a deeply cynical and irresponsible course for a nation on the glide path to insolvency.
Voters cannot do the right thing if Republicans cannot explain it clearly. So far, Ms. Corwin has been stiff and unimaginative. She needs help — fast.