The political world will be watching western New York today.
It is there, along the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, that the stage is set for a GOP special election upset in the once-sleepy race to succeed former Rep. Chris Lee (R). Republicans are preparing themselves for a victory by Democrat Kathy Hochul over Republican Jane Corwin in a district that is among the most conservative in the state.
And fair or not, the race has been framed as the country’s first unofficial referendum on Republicans’ plan to reshape Medicare. This referendum, however, could send ripple effects deep into 2012.
Two public polls in the past four days showed Hochul leading Corwin, with third-party candidate Jack Davis drawing a small, but significant, portion of the electorate. And one of those polls suggests Medicare has emerged as a prominent issue among likely voters.
“As long as it was a three-way race with some chaos, we knew this race was going to be in play,” said Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategies Group and a pollster for the Hochul campaign. “We got a lot more chaos than we ever expected.”
That chaos, he suggests, was the House Republican budget plan to transform Medicare. Corwin has come out in favor of the measure, forced to back a controversial plan that both sides acknowledge has frightened seniors across the region and become a central theme of the whirlwind campaign.
For Republicans, however, their chaos is personified by Davis, a businessman on pace to spend $3 million from his personal fortune on a bid to play GOP spoiler. A Republican turned Democrat turned Republican again, this is Davis’ fourth run for Congress, but the first in which he will occupy the Tea Party ballot line.
“Special elections are called special for a reason, and ones that include a self-funding Democrat masquerading as a tea party candidate make for a highly unusual race,” said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Jack Davis’ presence is the only reason why a candidate as flawed as Kathy Hochul could find herself in a competitive position in this district.”
But Hochul, the Erie County clerk, has indeed become a competitor. And both sides realize the stakes are high.
A Republican loss, regardless of the true reason, would be embarrassing for the GOP at best, while giving Democrats a tested and effective strategy to target swing districts in 2012 at worst.
Volunteers and surrogates have flooded the area.
On Monday, local voters heard directly from President Bill Clinton and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), the latest political stars to make robocalls for each side.