26 May 2011

Learning The Right Lessons From NY-26

After the resignation of the Rep. Mike Lee (R-NY 26th), the Craigslist cruising cad of an ex-Congressman, it necessitated a special election to fill the suburban Buffalo seat.  This should have been an easy seat for the GOP to retain.  Cook Political Reports  rates NY-26 as a R +6.  This seat has been held by just three Democrats since 1857 in a state that has long had lopsided Democrat delegations.  But in the Special Election, Democrat Eire County Clerk Kathy Honchel beat New York Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (R-NY state 141st Claire) 47% to 42% in a four way race.

A facile analysis is that disgrunted Republican voters are fooled by the faux Tea Party candidate Jack Davis.  Inevitably, some voters will blindly pull the lever for a candidate with the right label.  But Davis is a notorious deep pocket party switcher who has been a perennial candidate for Congress since 2004 under the Democrat (three times), a dalliance with the Save Jobs Party, rejoining the Republicans and now running on the self created Tea Party line.

Anyone who follows politics in his district should be well aware of industrialist Jack Davis’ devotion to protectionism for American Industry, which is not a platform that would play well to real Tea Party activists.  Recently, Davis also attracted attention for assaulting a political activist hounding him about not participating in the Special Election Candidate Debate.  According to the Siena poll, Davis is drawing 12% after a nine point drop.  At the ballot box, Davis drew 7% and exit polling indicated that 2/3rds of his support would otherwise have gone to the Republican Corwin.  So Davis was a spoiler DIABLO (Democrat in All But Label Only), but that does not explain how a Democrat did so well in what is supposed to be the third most Republican district in the nation.

One of the major flashpoints in the NY-26 Special Election was  Medicare.  During exchanges with other candidates, Republican Corwin unsuccessfully tried to pin the current problems of Medicare on her Democrat challenger now Congresswoman-elect Honchel.  The Democrats used their well worn playbook to demonize their opponents and scare seniors.  This edition of Mediscare (sic) was to villify Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI 1st) plan to save Medicare (which Corwin supported) while progressive allies outrageously advertised that Republicans would literally throw Grandma off the cliff.

The lesson the Democrats are discerning from Honchel’s victory in the Special Election is that the Mediscare mantra works and that they should take the message nationally for the 2012 elections.  Many establishment Republicans believe that Ryan’s hope for saving Medicare by reforming it put him too far out on a limb.  In fact, Speaker Newt Gingrich opined during his presidential campaign that he considered the Ryan plan right wing social engineering which he opposed but Gingrich later retreated on his disparagement of the Ryan Plan  after the damage was done.  The danger is that moderate Republicans will conclude that Republicans can not tackle big issues like reforming Medicare or trying to reduce the deficit by cutting government programs(or reforming them) because of voter backlash.

Indubtably, Republicans have to be mindful of how they campaign about making difficult decisions.  Mediscare might have cost them some support.  But GOP party animals should consider that the problems may have been the quirks of New York Special Elections, the New York electorate and campaign messaging.

This is the third New York Special Election that Republicans have lost in three years.  In the prior contest in  2009, when Rep. John McHugh (R-NY 23rd), a moderate North Eastern Republican,  resigned his seat in Congress to become President Obama’s Secretary of the Army, the GOP local party establishment chose NY Assemblywoman DeeDee Scozzafava (R-NY state 122nd Gouvenor) as a candidate.  Scozzafava was so liberal, even for squishy Empire State Republicans, that she was considered a DIABLO.  Scozzafava had previously supported the lefty Working Families Party and she had ties to ACORN.  So much so, grassroots Tea Party activists championed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.  Moderate Republicans like Rep. Peter King (R-NY 3rd) and aspiring national Republicans like Speaker Gingrich voiced support for Scozzafava for the good of the party.  But Scozzafava lost so much support that she dropped out of the race on the eve of the election and then threw her support to the Democrat candidate now Rep. Bill Owen (D-NY 23rd), who was re-elected with a plurality in 2010.

There is a danger with Special Elections in New York, which does not provision a primary that local party officials will choose an insider candidate which is repugnant to the party base, ala Scozzafava.  That does not seem like the case with Corwin, but she did not appear to be the darling on the district and more of a chosen candidate.  Longtime Republicans in the district noted that heavily Republican sections of the district did not display Corwin lawn signs.  It certainly shows a lack of passion for the candidate, but the question is why.

The lack of a primary does allow for a crowded field, with ersatz candidates like Jack Davis drawing likely votes away from the GOP.  But instead of refraining from campaigning on hard issues like Medicare, Republicans should stand for something and have better messaging.

Corwin had developed a reputation for negative campaigning from her race for the NY Assembly.  It seems like she was trying to tar her opponent with a Medicare loadstone via negative ads. Alas these attack ads backfired  as the charge boomeranged into pinning Corwin with the perception that she wants to end Medicare due to  her association with the  Ryan plan (a.k.a. Mediscare).

But Corwin did not give anything positive for her potential voters to support.  The campaigns littered mailboxes with flyers for the Special Election, but Corwin was not seen as standing for anything positive.  One of Corwin’s phone bank callers revealed her instructions to just say “Can we count on you to support Jane?”.  The phone bankers were told to only give rationales if asked.  If you don’t stand for something, even in a reliably Republican district, it is unlikely to motivate voters to the polls, especially if the electorate is not passionately connected with the candidate. That is a key lesson that should be learned from NY

Tea Party sympathizers should be chastened to support third party candidacies which fracture the electorate and allow Democrats to win in a plurality.  But Republicans should recognize that there is still considerable discontent amongst the electorate who wants answers and not blindly coming to the aid of their party.  Tea Party types have an independent streak with some libertarian leanings. But they want answers not incumbents who stand for nothing.

But if there is any consolation for the loss of NY-26 for Republicans, it will make things more difficult for redistricting.  New York is going to lose two Congressional seats due to the 2010 Census.  It would have been easy to undercut the few GOP Representatives.  But now they must cannibalize their own, which may actually make the seat competitive again in 2012, with a GOP candidate that stands for something.

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