"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.
So how did Corwin lose? Go back to that playbook Ryan was warning about. Hochul started with, and stuck to, one simple message: Vote for me, and I'll protect Medicare. After Ryan introduced his budget, she honed in on the part of it that turned Medicare from a guarantee into a "premium support" plan for people who are currently 55 or younger
Corwin defended the plan. She started to lose ground. She added a twist to the message: Supporting the Ryan plan meant saving Medicare; supporting anything else meant killing it. That was the gist of the ad I saw the most of when I was in the district last week, a warning to voters that when Hochul said everything was "on the table," including entitlement spending, she meant she wanted to cut entitlements.
By doing that, Corwin was conceding part of the argument. It wasn't the anti-Ryan plan playbook; it was a bad translation of it. She had very little time to recover. A lot of that time was wasted by an insanely stupid micro-scandal, when her chief of staff confronted Jack Davis outside a veterans' event and came away with 17 seconds of video and the immortal phrase "You want punched out?" Corwin never explained why, if Medicare had to be changed into something that covered fewer expenses, voters should trust the Republicans to do it.
"The goal in politics is to unite your friends and divide your enemies," said Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express (which supported Corwin over Davis). "The Medicare issue isn't helpful when Republicans are divided and Democrats are united."
There was more to the Democrats' playbook than an attack on Ryan. There was also fantasy. Hochul stayed gritty-yet-generic when she talked about entitlement reform. At no point did she really expand on what it meant to put everything "on the table." When she did get specific, it was in a way that took advantage of voters' inability to count. On the trail and in one closing commercial, she said she'd attack the budget deficit by cutting aid to Pakistan. Check the numbers: In 2010, total aid to Pakistan amounted to about $3 billion. Outlays for Medicare were $458.3 billion.
Hochul's victory speech was short but limned with promises and equations just like that. "We can balance our budget the right way," she said. "Not on the backs of our seniors but by closing corporate loopholes for companies that ship jobs overseas, and ending subsidies to Big Oil and, yes, by making the multimillionaires and billionaires pay their fair share. And we can ensure we do not decimate Medicare. We will keep the promises made to our seniors who have spent their lives paying into Medicare, so they can count on health care when they need it most."
The Ryan response is that Hochul's math doesn't add up, and that at some point, people are going to look at the debt, then look at their entitlements, and realize something's got to give.