HAMBURG, N.Y. - Rep. Kathy Hochul already pulled off one upset victory in this Congress - and she might not be done surprising people.
A Democrat running in the Empire State's most Republican district, Hochul's May 2011 special election win was substantially fueled by talking about Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget blueprint and its effects on Medicare.
But if Hochul wins this tough re-election race next month, it will be her strength as a retail politician that clinches it for her. Democratic messaging on Medicare isn't the political kill shot it once was - at least not here.
Republicans have worked hard to effectively blunt Democratic attacks on their votes or support for the Ryan budget by pointing to the roughly $716 billion in cuts in future Medicare spending embedded in the Affordable Care Act.
While Democrats still have an edge discussing the popular entitlement program, top Democrats concede broader GOP messaging has worked to an extent.
"You have to give the Republicans kudos for how they've shaped ACA and the '$716 billion cuts for to pay for Obamacare,'" said one influential Democratic pollster who surveys across the nation. "It has absolutely helped to neutralize our advantage on Medicare. You have to give to them that."
Hochul's Republican opponent, businessman and former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, was out of the gate in early September with an ad hitting Hochul for her vote against repeal of the Affordable Care Act to impugn her bona fides on protecting Medicare. Neither Hochul nor her Democratic allies have yet aired ads about Medicare, focusing instead on issues of debt and deficit.
The Republican attacks are part of the reason Hochul is here Monday, stumping at a nursing home in the town where she began her political career and talking about the much-loved entitlement program.
The metronome-like puff of an elderly man's oxygen is the only sound competing with Hochul's short speech.
She knocks the Ryan budget for hurting seniors and says the real kicker is that the plan would "cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires."
"That is a different set of priorities than I have," she says, her voice rising.
Hochul opens the floor to questions and an older woman raises her hand and looks concerned. "That $713 billion they took out of Medicare. What is that?" she asks, referring to cuts in future Medicare spending in the Affordable Care Act.
Hochul says beneficiaries will not be affected and notes that the savings are also part of Ryan's budget blueprint. The woman remains uneasy.
There's not a lot of Democratic turf in the newly configured 27th district. But here, in the district's largest town where she served on the town board, the Congresswoman is in friendly territory. She talks to about 25 people: senior citizens, their families and staff. She talks about her family and taking care of a sick aunt. She mentions her job as a teenager, working at a pizza joint.
Hochul is warm and engaging in person. She's funny in a self-effacing way. Everyone she meets calls her Kathy. And, despite being in politics for years, she lacks the patina of artifice that sometimes seems to cling to federal elected officials.
'Preaching to the Choir'
It's impossible for Collins to avoid stepping in the manure splattered on the floor of a barn at a vast dairy farm in Oakfield, about 40 miles northeast of Buffalo. But the businessman, dressed in slacks, a blue campaign fleece and brown moccasins, doesn't seem to mind. He is focused less on what is underfoot and more on peppering one of the farm's workers with questions about the dairy's day-to-day operations and the vacillating supply of and demand for milk.
A few minutes later, in another barn, Collins talks to three generations of the Post family, who own the farm, about his beliefs and those of Hochul.
"My opponent and Barack Obama believe we can tax our way to prosperity. I know that's nonsense: We grow our way to prosperity by celebrating the success of small business," Collins says. "They're two different philosophies."
"You're preaching to the choir here!" says Jeff Post, standing across from his grandfather.
Hochul's big problem in November is that it's a pretty big choir in her district. Under the state's new map, drawn by a federal court, Obama would have won only 42 percent of the vote in the district in 2008.
But the solution to that problem - if there is one - is her. In conversations with more than a dozen voters across the district, all said they had seen her ads and all had a favorable impression, even if they weren't going to vote for a Democrat.
Collins, who has a reputation for directness and occasionally saying impolitic things, is not as charismatic. But his Republican views fit the district.
"Simply," says former Rep. Bill Paxon (R), who represented a previous incarnation of the 27th, "it's a good, solid conservative Republican district."
Still, Hochul "has a great crossover appeal," adds former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R), who also represented the district. "The question will be: Are the Republican numbers insurmountable for her to overcome, or can she package an appeal that earns the votes?"
Reynolds' sense is that if Collins can make the race about national issues, he wins comfortably. But if Hochul shifts it to a personality-driven contest, her chances of coming back to Congress improve.
"Kathy has a very telegenic, easygoing style that helped get her to the offices she's enjoyed in Erie County, including this one. I think people like her," Reynolds says. "Collins has a much more strident personality, and sometimes that comes through and sometimes that doesn't."
Stumping for Votes
On the campaign trail, Collins occasionally appears forced, launching into standard economic Republican talking points without provocation. But he's a highly competent politico and gets a positive reaction from voters.
In a diner in a rural part of the district on Tuesday, a woman approaches Collins' table and asks if he has any yard signs she can take. She mutters complaints about Hochul's staff not being accessible. The Republican gives her his cellphone number.
The importance of retail politicking in this race - in a largely exurban and rural district ?- cannot be overemphasized.
At a senior center not far from the Erie Canal in the town of Lockport, Hochul gives her spiel on Medicare to a third audience Monday. "My opponent is trying to spin it that I'm the one hurting Medicare. I would never do that," she says.
Hochul gets a positive response and begins to help serve seniors their lunch.
Phyllis Frost, a chatty 83-year-old independent voter, sits eating a hot dog and red Jell-O a few minutes later. She is familiar with Hochul, having seen her on many TV commercials. "You have the TV on a lot because you get lonely around here," she explains. Frost says Medicare is the issue most important to her.
So is she going to vote for Hochul next month?
Frost picks at her hot dog with her fork. "I don't know," she says.