"Medicare! Medicare! Medicare!"
That was the chant in the union hall where Democrat Kathy Hochul declared victory last night, breezing past Republican Jane Corwin in a congressional election that was supposed to be closer. It reminded me of the fundraising e-mail Paul Ryan had sent out 11 days earlier for Corwin's campaign.
"The playbook the Democrats and special interests have been using to attack me is being used right now in New York's 26th District," wrote Ryan. "As the New York Times has pointed out, my budget plan is at the center of the campaign."
The playbook worked. Corwin lost. So: What was the GOP's excuse for losing a seat like this—a seat carefully whittled from the towns between Buffalo and Rochester, made to elect suburban Republicans? They started making it even before voters woke up Tuesday, when the stench of doom started to waft over the Corwin campaign. On Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dismissed the contest as a "three-way race," which it mostly was. After Hochul declared victory, the Republican National Committee bitterly saluted Corwin for "facing a Democrat and a Democrat posed as a Tea Party candidate." The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee—$425,000 poorer after buying ads for the campaign—reminisced about Corwin's campaign against "two Democrats."
If the election was a mess, most of the splatter was on the Republican side. It started after Rep. Chris Lee was caught sending e-mails of his disturbingly taut torso to a woman who didn't happen to be his wife. It was up to the state and district's Republican leadership to pick a candidate; their choices included Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, Iraq war hero David Bellavia, and Republican-turned-Democrat-turned Republican Jack Davis. Bellavia had been gunning for the seat for years. Both Corwin and Davis were independently wealthy. Corwin was a more loyal partisan. (You'd have to work hard not to be more loyal than Davis.) So Corwin got the nomination. Davis promptly set up a "Tea Party" ballot line and started running again.
"If they'd chosen Bellavia, Davis said he would not run," said Michael Caputo, a Republican strategist in New York who managed Carl Paladino's gaffe-a-minute 2010 campaign for governor. (Paladino lost statewide but won the district by 22 points.) "By opting for Corwin, they chose the three-way."
This was a district that Lee had held easily, and that had only ever had close elections when Davis, running as an anti-trade, anti-immigration populist with a (D) after his name, plowed his money into TV ads. In late April, the New York-based Siena Poll showed Corwin up only 5 points on Hochul as Davis polled at 23 percent. The solution was obvious: Bring down Davis. And so the Corwin campaign and outside conservative groups started to beat up Davis or Davis and Hochul. American Crossroads spent $700,000 on ads like that.
The ads worked. Davis ended the election with only 8 percent of the vote. But the smart take, when the ads began, was that driving Davis down would lift Corwin up. It didn't happen. Disaffected Davis voters split for Hochul. According to the final Siena poll, which predicted that Davis would do slightly better than he did, he was the candidate of 10 percent of Democrats, 13 percent of Republicans, and 16 percent of independents.