Tonight’s decisive victory by Democrat Kathy Hochul in the NY-26 special election will be tomorrow’s No. 1 topic of political conversation. Why did Hochul win a seat so Republican that John McCain won it handily, one of only four New York House seats to resist Obama? While the parties will argue over whether ads attacking Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan were to blame, a look at the underlying demographics confirms a year-long trend against the GOP among blue-collar whites.
NY-26 combines two types of territory: suburban precincts around Buffalo (Erie County) and Rochester (Monroe County), and largely rural territory in between. The suburban parts are highly educated by national standards, while the education level in the district’s five other counties is well below the national average. The town of Amherst in Erie County is the most educated part, with over 50 percent having at least a B.A.; Orleans County is the least educated, in which only 14 percent of adults have a college degree.
The results so far show Hochul doing best in educated Erie County. At this writing, she has 53 percent of the vote there, three points ahead of Obama. She is the Erie County Clerk, so perhaps this is a “hometown” effect — but it’s interesting that Erie is also Jack Davis’s worst county; he’s getting only 7 percent here. In the rest of the district, Hochul is running even with or slightly behind Obama. However, these are Davis’s best counties — every vote he wins here is coming straight from the Republican, Jane Corwin. And Davis’s share of the vote increases the less educated the county is. Davis is receiving between 11 and 15 percent in the four counties with fewer than 20 percent college-educated adults, and only 8 percent in more educated Monroe County.
It’s bad enough that Hochul is running even with Obama’s totals from the best Democratic year in the past three decades. But the comparison to 2010 is truly frightening. Republicans were competitive in two statewide races last year, those for comptroller and attorney general. Fueled by the GOP wave, the Republican candidates in those races received 66 and 60 percent in NY-26 — well above McCain’s 52 percent in 2008 and George W. Bush’s 55 percent in 2004. Hochul is running 15 points ahead of the lowest performing 2010 Democrat, and, because of Davis, Republican Jane Corwin is running about 18 percent below the lowest performing Republican.
The verdict is clear. For whatever reason, the blue-collar independents and Democrats who voted Republican in droves last year did not vote GOP tonight. And many blue-collar Republicans voted for Davis rather than Corwin.
It’s true that one should not read too much into one election. Joseph Cao’s surprise win in New Orleans did not mean blacks were moving to the GOP, and Charles Djou won a three-way special in Democratic Honolulu in May only to lose the seat in a two-way race in the fall. But these underlying trends are consistent with the results obtained recently in Wisconsin (see here and here).
As I’ve written before, blue-collar voters react differently to issues than the GOP base does. They are more supportive of safety-net programs at the same time as they are strongly opposed to large government programs in general. These voters crave stability and are uncertain of their ability to compete in a globalized economy that values higher education more each year. They are also susceptible to the age-old Democratic argument that the secret Republican agenda is to eviscerate middle-class entitlements to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.
The truth is, if conservatives and Republicans are to move forward with entitlement reform (as they should), they need to address the real concerns of these pivotal voters. Eric Cantor’s recent statements that Ryan’s plan is the only way to protect Medicare is a step in the right direction, because the truth is that the president’s plan does not ensure that Medicare will remain strong in the face of gigantic budget deficits as far as the eye can see. And to the extent that he does offer a solution, it’s in the form of bureaucratic and political price setting — a rationing of care via the unelected IPAB and CMS bureaucrats. Blue-collar whites do not trust government generally; they certainly will not like that.
Republicans need to fight the war over the future of Medicare fiercely and intelligently. Perhaps tonight’s debacle will be the wake-up call they sorely need.
— Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its National Research Initiative.