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Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) scored an upset special election victory in May by hammering the Republican plan to overhaul Medicare, and her win is a stark sign for Democrats in a debt ceiling fight where entitlements are on the table.
While President Barack Obama has kept Medicare restructuring as a bargaining chip in his debt talks with Republicans, many House Democrats have been skeptical of going along. And it was Hochul who told her colleagues last week that relenting on the issue was not a smart strategy.
At a closed-door Caucus meeting, Hochul told fellow Democrats she did not win in Western New York because she was a deficit hawk or bipartisan deal broker.
"I won independent voters by defending Medicare," she said, according to aides familiar with the discussion.
As the newest member of the Democratic Caucus — that is until Rep.-elect Janice Hahn (Calif.) is sworn in — Hochul said she is in touch with the needs of voters, particularly in swing districts.
Campaigning on a message to protect Medicare, grow the economy and even raise taxes on wealthy Americans, Hochul said she is proof that the Democratic message resonates with constituents.
"I've been tested more recently than anyone else in this body, so I feel that the information that I bring and the mandate that comes with me is probably more accurate than even last fall," Hochul said in an interview last week.
Hochul said standing firm on entitlements and promoting a message for the middle class is "the core of what we're about." And given her election to replace former GOP Rep. Chris Lee, "I'm actually more surprised there aren't more reasonable Republicans who understand that dynamic."
"I won in a Republican district on those themes, so my sense is Republicans would be served by embracing the same things," the former Erie County clerk said. "I think they should feel more confident in doing the right thing based on my election, as well."
While she is a junior Member of the minority party, Hochul has enjoyed some high-profile opportunities during her brief time in office. She appeared alongside Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) at a press conference last week to tout the Democratic stance in the debt ceiling debate and tell those in attendance that "the message that comes from Western New York is they are willing to put their faith in someone who may not be the same party as them because we speak to core American issues that are not partisan." She has been in touch with outside groups such as EMILY's List to help recruit candidates for 2012, and according to one source, "She knows how important her race was to the Democratic resurgence."
Under the Dome, Hochul's presence has also given a boost to a minority party that, up until a few months ago, had not found a way to punch through the deficit reduction message Republicans have relentlessly pursued.
"Every time I talk to this Caucus and remind them about the importance of stating our support for Medicare, I use Kathy Hochul as Exhibit A," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said.
First-term Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), who was happy to see the ranks of the Democratic freshman class increase with Hochul's arrival, said, "If there's any lesson you can say you learned from Kathy, it's that — it's to stay on message."
As a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, Hochul is already a political target. If the district alone didn't prove enough of a challenge, she faces the threat that her district could be erased entirely by the redistricting process. New York must shed two seats because of reapportionment. Aware of the challenges ahead, she had raised more than $1.8 million, as of June 30, since launching her campaign in early March.
While Republicans will seek to make Hochul a one-term wonder, the uncertainty of her political future has allowed her to operate with a unique sense of freedom that could actually give her an electoral boost, one Democratic aide suggested.
"Her main brand for the foreseeable future is going to be authentic, and that can go a really long way, especially when who knows what the political future is going to look like in New York," the aide said.
Hochul, who forged a few Republican friendships after playing in the Congressional Women's Softball Game just weeks after being sworn into office, is also no stranger to Capitol Hill. She was legal counsel for former Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.) and worked for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
"I hope I'll live to see another day in 2012," she said. "Until then, we should leave our differences checked at the door, go out and play some softball, have a beer and treat each other like human beings with respect."