And the end came, not with a bang, but with a whimper. The special election in Western New York’s 26th congressional district to replace the insufficiently clad Chris “Craigslist” Lee should, by all rights, have been a lackluster affair of little note in a backwater area south of Buffalo. After all, the 26th hasn’t elected enough Democrats since the Civil War to field a baseball team. What we wound up with, to invoke the spirits of Laurel and Hardy, was a fine mess indeed.
First, due to the eccentricities of the Empire State’s arcane election laws, there would be no primary. The county chairs for each party would assemble and apply their infinite wisdom to the task of appointing candidates. (Savvy readers will recall that this is the same tried and true system which produced the Dede Scozzafava vs. Doug Hoffman kerfuffle a few years back.) Adding sauce for the goose, New York’s rather unique fusion style ballot system assures ballot lines for any third party who manages to wrangle 50,000 votes in each gubernatorial election, as well as easy access to anyone else that wishes to create their own “party” and can send out enough flunkies with petitions over a few weekends.
This delicate political machinery produced Jane Corwin for the GOP and Kathy Hochul for the Democrats. Jane was a fine enough candidate by most New York standards, but her flirtations with pro-choice positions immediately set off sparks with some of the more conservative voters who were looking at other options along with the New York State Conservative Party (CP). In the end, though, the CP got on board and endorsed Corwin as well. Hochul, meanwhile, was virtually unopposed among the ranks of the Democrats and also nabbed the endorsement of the Working Families Party (WFP).
But these two ladies were not the only ones showing up to the dance. First, the Green Party attracted the candidacy of Ian Murphy, previously known only for prank calling Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Mr. Murphy was apparently attempting to extend his fifteen minutes of YouTube fame before resigning himself to a career of hoping for guest spots on TruTV’s World’s Dumbest series. But he wasn’t the only spoiler.
Enter Jack Davis, multimillionaire and perennial congressional candidate. Mr. Davis landed himself a spot on the “Tea Party” candidate line, which came as quite the surprise to the only organized, active Tea Party group in the area, as they endorsed Ms. Corwin on April 13th. They had never even considered Davis. The moniker was even more unexpected considering that Jack had run as a Democrat in three consecutive elections and had even been previously endorsed by the aforementioned Working Families Party. (For those not familiar, the WFP is the safe haven for New Yorkers who find the Democrats to be not quite liberal or socialist enough.)
Sparing you the pain of watching the ensuing battle unfold from the cheap seats along with other New York politicos, this brings us to Tuesday’s election. While Team Corwin had filed an injunction against declaring a winner in anticipation of a close race, the dust settled much faster than expected. The final tally showed Hochul with a 47-43 margin of victory and Corwin delivered her concession speech before 11:00 pm.
So what should we take away from this sad tale? Liberals were quick to jump on the theme that this spelled the death of entitlement reform and the Republican revolution, based on the fact that Hochul had run her campaign primarily not against Jane Corwin, but Paul Ryan. But the picture was obviously far cloudier than that.
Turnout for this race was dismal by any standard, coming in at barely 101,000 votes cast. Races with that small of a sample are notoriously finicky, and it’s difficult to draw conclusions. Plus, there was the Davis effect. It played out far differently than I had originally anticipated, but it was still a significant factor. Davis was pulling 23% of the vote in mid-April according to Siena polling, but when his support began to crater, his followers broke to the Democrat by a nearly 5:1 margin. However, he retained a base of 9% in the end, and if those voters had been more likely to lean toward Corwin she could have still pulled out a victory.
This does not mean, however, that Republicans aren’t whistling past the graveyard to a certain extent if they try to pass off this loss as a third party aberration. What we saw in NY-26 is, without a doubt, a preview of the playbook which Democrats will be running in 2012. While the rest of the nation focuses on jobs and the national debt, for the first time, Siena found that the highest ranked priority among likely voters the week before the election was Medicare. Corwin herself sheepishly admitted last week that she had let the entitlement horse get too far out of the barn before she responded to Hochul’s attacks on that front.
Voter education on fixing entitlement programs before we go over the cliff is always going to be a challenge, and this race should serve as a stern warning. It’s an easy sell for Democrats on an extremely complicated issue, and any Republican embracing the Ryan plan for 2012 should be taking notes from Corwin’s experience when framing their messaging strategy for next year.
So, do the results of this special election contain portents for the future? Without a doubt they do. But it’s not as simple as either side would have you believe. This was a noteworthy event and those who don’t learn from Corwin’s mistakes may be doomed to repeat them next year.