WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y.—Kathy Hochul has arrived at an assisted-living facility in this Buffalo suburb, and she's brought the gift of gloom. She asks for a few minutes of time from the dozen senior citizens here, and small-talks with the ones who seem interested.
"I've been married 73 years," says one of them.
"Seventy-three years!" says Hochul, bending over to talk to him. "I want to know your secret."
"Don't die!" he says.
She laughs out loud. "Don't die! Works every time."
The happy exchange segues nicely into her speech, which is—crudely speaking—about how if Republicans have their way, people will die.
"A couple weeks ago," says Hochul, "there was a law passed on Capitol Hill that turned back the clock to the 1960s. What it did was, it said no longer will our Medicare program be the way it is now. It ends Medicare as we know it. That's not me talkin'. That's the Wall Street Journal and all the major news sources."
Four days from Tuesday's special election, Democrats are trying to close this campaign with the attack they've loved since Rep. Paul Ryan introduced his "Path to Prosperity" in April. The election is a choice: Vote for the Democrat and save Medicare, or vote for the Republican and start dismantling it for spare parts.
It has the makings of a totally issue-based election. And this campaign is basically free of personal attacks and character attacks. But that's not to say there has been an ideological debate over Medicare or entitlement spending. The Republican, Jane Corwin, answers the Medicare attack by saying no, seriously, she'll work twice as hard to make sure it survives. The first election since the Ryan plan passed the House isn't really a fight over the Ryan plan. It's about which candidate loves Medicare more—or more accurately, about how the other candidate loves it less.
The Democratic message is the easier sell, and Hochul is good at selling it. She's a local politician who rose through the ranks to become the clerk of Erie County, home to a nice plurality of voters in the 26th district. She's risen to that level while sounding exactly the way most of the people here sound, with a flat western New York accent and sentences that play some havoc with clauses and tenses.
"What it does," she continues, "is instead of having guaranteed health insurance, like we've all come to rely on the last 45 years, it says you'll have a voucher, instead. Now, they're saying: Don't worry, seniors! It's not going to affect you. It's only the people my age, 55 and up. But they actually did something that made your prescription drugs cost more. Current seniors would actually pay more for prescription drugs, and future seniors—and I hope to be a senior someday myself—will have a voucher program. I've gotta tell ya, I'm the candidate in this race who's gonna look out for your interests."
She wraps up and gets polite applause. She's won over the room, a little. There's one older lady who's murmuring about how she wants to keep watching the documentary about Mexico that Hochul interrupted. There's more applause. Hank Janicki, who will later tell me he's a World War II veteran who was relieved at the end "because Truman saved us," raises his hand. How does Hochul save Medicare?
"We have problems in Washington," says Hochul. "We have to cut our expenses." For example: "You know how much money we give a year to Pakistan? About $3 billion a year! They're not exactly our friends these days. You know where they caught Bin Laden? Yeah, right in the middle of Pakistan! The downtown area, practically. You're right, sir. I think their priorities are wrong. They're worrying about Pakistan and giving the people who had more some tax breaks."
I ask Janicki what he thought of the answer. "Eh," he says, "it was an answer." He's not excited. The Pakistan stuff came out of nowhere. Still, he's for Hochul now.
Hochul bangs this same drum wherever she goes. After she meets voters at a nearby Greek restaurant, I try to nail her down on how, exactly, she thinks Medicare can be kept in its current form into the indefinite future. For example, in her crusade to save the system, she opposes the $500 billion in savings that were part of the Affordable Care Act. Those savings were weaponized in Republican ads in 2010, but according to the Medicare actuary they keep the system alive an extra eight years. Why scrap them?
"I think we've got to make sure that it doesn't trickle down to hurt any of the beneficiaries," she says, "and I'm not confident of that."
This doesn't sound much like a debate about entitlements in Washington. There is no talk here of "shared sacrifice." There's the luxury of campaign-speak, where everything good can be preserved forever. That's how Jane Corwin sells the Ryan plan. Later the same day, Corwin arrives at a Republican dinner in Clarence, another Buffalo suburb. A thin crowd has barely dented the immense supply of pasta and cannoli and gooey peanut-butter treats while talking about a race they think they're winning.
"A lot of those Jack Davis votes are going to come home," explains Ray Walter, a local legislator, referring to the Tea Party candidate in the race. "Hochul's got the views of 30 percent or so of the people in the district, so she'll win that, and that's it."
Key to keeping the Hochul vote down: convincing voters that she's lying her head off about Medicare. Corwin arrives and makes the rounds, joking and reminiscing. In the final debate this week, she was a little stiffer than Hochul. Her attack lines were worn with use—it was hard to count how many times she called the Democrat a "career politician." In person, she's much more affable, quick with facts and anecdotes. And even in a room of Republicans, she is asking for help convincing voters that she wants to save a linchpin of the Great Society.
"Just for the record, I am not decimating Medicare!"
Oh! Thank God!
"On the contrary, I am the one who's trying to save Medicare! It's President Obama and the Medicare Board of Trustees who say if we do nothing, the system will be bankrupt by 2024. When you go out there, do me a favor and tell your friends: Jane is saving Medicare, not decimating."
In an interview after the event, Corwin says she thinks she's identified how the race became about Medicare.
"When the Ryan plan came out," she says, "the national Democrats came down on this 'Oh, you're decimating Medicare!' message. They just sent it down to my opponent and let her run with it."
But Corwin doesn't support keeping Medicare around in its current form. She supports turning it all into Medicare Part D. She gets some of the questions voters have asked, like: In this new Utopia of free-market plans, why exactly do insurers pick up, and not ignore, seniors with pre-existing conditions?
"Certainly I'd like to see pre-existing conditions and children staying on their parents' plans," she says.
If Corwin wins this district next Tuesday, after all the attention paid to the race, Republicans will offer her victory as proof that Republicans can endorse the Ryan plan and survive. That'd be too simplistic. If Corwin wins, it will be because the district has a seven-point registration advantage for Republicans over Democrats—and because she didn't so much defend the Ryan plan as defend Medicare, and she did so by accusing her Democratic foe of defending it with lesser passion.
"She said it's all on the table," says Corwin, defending her much-attacked, omnipresent ad in which Hochul is portrayed as an entitlement-cutter in disguise. "In the context she said it, it sounded like cuts to me. She doesn't want to take a position because it would be politically difficult to do that."