Sometimes special elections are harbingers of things to come. And sometimes they are not. The tricky part is that nobody can tell the difference until long afterwards. Which certainly doesn't stop rampant speculation in the meantime. Last night, a Democrat pulled off a surprising upset in New York's 26th congressional district, in an election that was forced due to the resignation of a House member who got caught trolling the internet (with shirtless pictures, no less) for extramarital fun and games. What this signifies for the 2012 election is anyone's guess, at this point.
Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis in a very red district in upstate New York. The big issue in the race was the Paul Ryan budget plan, which would change Medicare as we know it into a voucher system. Hochul decided to make this the centerpiece of her race, and the Republicans responded by pouring money into the district in support of their candidate (who supported the Ryan plan). Despite being heavily outspent in a very Republican district, Hochul won.
The spin emanating from both sides in the wake of the special election has been fierce. Democrats have proclaimed that Medicare will be the number one issue for next year's race, and are reportedly eyeing up to 100 Republican House seats they think may be vulnerable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held a vote today on the Paul Ryan budget, and Republicans were only able to muster 40 votes for it -- each and every one of which will immediately be turned into a campaign commercial by the Democrats (although, being the Senate, not all 40 are up for election next year). Nancy Pelosi has a snappy new slogan she's testing out, in response to Republican complaints that Democrats "have no plan." Pelosi's response? "We have a plan -- it's called Medicare." Not bad, as slogans go.
Republicans are spinning in another direction. According to them, the Tea Party candidate in the race split the Republican vote, and so therefore this one special election isn't going to mean much next year. They could be right, at least to some degree or another. Democrats did win a number of special elections in the run-up to the 2010 midterm election, and it did them little to no good at all in November. Paul Ryan deserves some sort of chutzpah award for his response to the negative voter reaction to his plan -- Ryan is now complaining that Democrats are using "scare tactics" against his Medicare ideas. The irony of Republicans complaining about scare tactics on Medicare is apparently lost on Ryan (two words for you, Paul, since you seem to have forgotten: "death panels").
Underneath all the spin, it's hard to deny that Democrats are feeling good about yesterday's election victory up in Buffalo. There's a certain wind-in-our-sails feeling about the whole strategy of hammering Republicans on the Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare. And it's hard not to see it as payback royally deserved for the Republican attacks on Obama's healthcare reform. With all the exaggerations and outright lies (most notably the "killing Granny" sort) thrown at Democrats only a few years ago, Republicans are going to be seen as nothing short of whiny by voters if they try to take the "let's not demagogue Medicare" high road now, by complaining about Democratic "scare tactics." Voters may have a short attention span these days, but it's not that short -- everyone still remembers who was using scare tactics the last time this came up. And Democrats don't have to lie about Ryan's plan to make their point, because it is the absolute truth that Ryan's plan would "end Medicare as we know it" as well as immediately affect seniors as soon as it passed (since Ryan would repeal what he calls "Obamacare," which would immediately end the program which is now paying seniors to fill in the "donut hole" in their prescription drug coverage).
It wouldn't surprise me right now if -- behind the scenes and very quietly -- Republican Party leaders are conceding that possibly Newt Gingrich was right. When Newt called Ryan's plan for Medicare "radical" and "right-wing social engineering" the ideologues in the party landed on him like a ton of bricks. But maybe Newt was onto something that mainstream Republicans are now giving a second look. Unfortunately for them, it's now too late to do much about it. The reaction to Newt's words moved the issue back to center stage, and set a standard for Republican candidates: Agree with Ryan, or else. A single special election for a House seat may not change that dynamic much, if at all. If the Republican Party continues to insist on purity on this issue, they stand to lose a lot of independent voters in the middle -- but that won't become obvious until the general election happens.
Democratic leaders are already doing their best to keep the issue under the spotlights. The leader of the Democratic campaign committee in the House, Steve Israel, was downright taunting in his reaction to the Hochul win: "Today, the Republican plan to end Medicare cost Republicans $3.4 million and a seat in Congress... and this is only the first seat." Harry Reid sounded a similar note: "The Republican plan to kill Medicare is a plan to make the rich richer and the sick sicker. Last night the people of America resoundingly spoke in rejecting the Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it. The Number One, Two and Three issue in that congressional district -- as it is all over the country -- is destroying Medicare as we know it, putting insurance companies between patients and their physician."
My humble guess is that neither party has the spin entirely correct on the importance of Medicare and the New York special election, but that the Democrats are probably closer to the truth than the Republicans. Medicare may not be the biggest issue in the 2012 elections (as Democrats are now pronouncing it), but neither will it be a non-issue (as Republicans would dearly like it to become). There will be other issues which loom just as large (if not larger) by next November. The economy, for instance. On the Medicare issue, however, the polls show that the public is much more accepting of keeping Medicare as it is now than radically changing it to a voucher system. Paul Ryan seems to be walking down a road usually travelled by Democrats -- thinking that if you just explain your plan thoroughly enough, everyone will automatically love it. So far, the Republican Party is following Ryan down this primrose path.
The Ryan budget is a classic example of overreach. One party wins big in an election, and automatically assumes that the public is one hundred percent behind everything they want to do. When they actually lay their cards for radical change on the table, however, the public recoils. It used to be that this pendulum of public opinion took a long time to swing back and forth between the parties. But in our 24/7 media world today, that pendulum has sped up. Democrats had "big win" elections in 2006 and 2008. Republicans had a big win in 2010. Less than half a year into their term, though, the pendulum has already begun swinging back to the Democrats. The time period between swings is getting shorter.
But, once again, one special election win in a three-way contest does not guarantee anything. Democrats should in no way feel complacent after this victory, nor should they feel that they have the magic campaign theme which will sweep the election next year. There's a lot of work to do before we get to next November, and Democrats shouldn't believe their own spin too much. A year and a half is an eternity in political time, and literally anything could happen between now and then. But it cannot be denied (to close with a medical metaphor) that Kathy Hochul's win in a very red district is indeed a hefty shot in the arm for Democrats' chances next year.
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