WASHINGTON -- The 2012 election found its defining issue on Tuesday night, with an insurgent Democrat upsetting a well-financed Republican in a deeply red district in New York state.
The GOP paved the way for the Democrat's victory by voting earlier this year to end the current Medicare program that guarantees health coverage to seniors and replace it with a voucher system that provides premium support for the elderly to purchase private health insurance.
The Republican in the race, Jane Corwin, fully endorsed the GOP plan to alter Medicare, while the Democrat, Kathy Hochul, defended the social safety net. The race's polling trends point to Medicare as the defining issue, while the conversation has played out on a national level. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) summed up the Democratic position: "We have a plan -- it's called Medicare."
With some exceptions, Democrats have ranged from reluctant defenders of government spending to outright hawkish assailants of social funds. But nothing focuses the mind like political calculation, and the upset in upstate New York has sent a message so clear that not even the highest priced Democratic consultant could miss it.
"Kathy Hochul's victory tonight is a tribute to Democrats' commitment to preserve and strengthen Medicare, create jobs and grow our economy. And it sends a clear message that will echo nationwide: Republicans will be held accountable for their vote to end Medicare," Pelosi said in a statement after the election.
The race began turning toward the Democrat when Corwin embraced the GOP's Medicare plan in mid-April. The campaigns had already been communicating with voters, airing television spots for nearly a month. Corwin attacked Hochul on the airwaves in late March for having sought property tax increases and attempted to link Hochul to Pelosi, following the playbook Republicans applied with success during 2010. Hochul responded with a series of ads beginning in early April, but none mentioned Medicare.
That changed on April 26 when the Hochul campaign began airing an ad that hit Corwin for saying "she would vote for the 2012 Republican budget that would essentially end Medicare," that would have seniors "pay $6,400 more for the same coverage" and would "cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans."
Just before Hochul's television campaign shifted to Medicare, a Siena Research survey showed Corwin leading Hochul by a surprisingly narrow margin, 36 percent to 31 percent. But ten days later, an automated survey conducted by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling and sponsored by SEIU showed Hochul leading by four points (35 percent to 31 percent). And in the final week, two more surveys, one from PPP and one from Siena College, both showed Hochul leading by similar margins.
Jef Pollock, Hochul's pollster, told HuffPost that the numbers showed the Democrat winning among seniors and independents, two groups that broke heavily for Republicans in 2010.
"This race was won, in a significant way, because of the disastrous decision by the GOP to dismantle Medicare as we know it," he said. "Kathy Hochul was a great candidate. And credit is due to her for running a great race as well as credit to the campaign for making Medicare a central issue -- that's why Hochul was winning 74 percent of the voters who said that Medicare was the most important issue to them in the most recent Siena poll conducted just a few days ago," he said.
Steve Murphy, Hochul's media consultant, argued that his candidate persuaded voters she was concerned about the deficit without needing to cut Medicare. "A Democrat in a competitive district can win on the Ryan budget and Medicare issue as long as they first demonstrate to voters that they are tough on spending and serious about the problem of rising deficits," he suggested. "Five of our seven ads had a strong fiscal component, not just Medicare."
Democrats highlighted the serious money the Republicans put into the election. "Today, the Republican plan to end Medicare cost Republicans $3.4 million and a seat in Congress. And this is only the first seat," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), head of the Democrats' House campaign arm.
House Republicans pinned blame for Corwin's loss on a quirky third-party candidate, Jack Davis, who ran under the Tea Party despite an eclectic and sometimes liberal political past. "Republican Jane Corwin ran a hard-fought campaign against two well-funded Democrats, including one masquerading under the Tea Party name," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), head of the House GOP campaign operation. "Obviously, each side would rather win a special election than lose, but to predict the future based on the results of this unusual race is naive and risky."
American Crossroads, a GOP group that spent heavily in the race, said that the race indicates a resurgent Democratic party, whether the third-party candidate tipped it or not. "The debate over whether Medicare mattered more than a third-party candidate who split the Republican vote is mostly a partisan Rorschach Test," said American Crossroads' Jonathan Collegio. "What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It's going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year."
The GOP can't and won't retreat from the Medicare valley it has occupied. "We know that bell can't be un-rung, and we wouldn't want to," said a well-placed GOP aide. "We're on the right side of history. If President Obama wants to be 'the grown-up in the room,' he's going to have to grapple with grown-up problems. We have."
Indeed, the GOP has been doing plenty of grappling lately, but it's been mostly with constituents and members of the party. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was browbeaten by his party for calling the Medicare plan "right-wing social engineering" and endorsing Paul Ryan's budget, which includes Medicare reform as its signature component and has become a litmus test for candidates.
At home, Republicans have faced hostile town halls with seniors questioning how they'll be able to purchase private insurance with a voucher that doesn't rise at the rate of health care costs. At a recent town hall, a constituent of Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) raised a practical obstacle to obtaining coverage in the private market within the confines of an employer-based health insurance system: What happens when you retire?
"The private corporation that I retired from does not give medical benefits to retirees," the woman told the congressman in video captured a local Patch reporter in Dacula, Ga.
"Hear yourself, ma'am. Hear yourself," Woodall told the woman. "You want the government to take care of you, because your employer decided not to take care of you. My question is, 'When do I decide I'm going to take care of me?'"
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pounced on the remark, telling the Washington Post that it typifies Republican ideology.
Tuesday's special election was held to fill the seat of Chris Lee, who resigned after topless photographs he sent of himself to a woman on Craigslist surfaced.