What went wrong for Republicans in New York 26 

So Democrat Kathy Hochul has beaten Republican Jane Corwin 47%-43% in the New York 26th congressional district special election.

Many writers—both conservatives like my Examiner colleague Phil Klein, John McCormack of the Weekly Standard and Jim Geraghty of National Review and, writing before the election, non-conservatives like Charlie Cook of National Journal and Nate Silver of the New York Times—have been arguing that this race has little precedental value. “A special election may be a special case,” Silver entitled a blogpost on the race, and Cook was more categorical and colorful. "[I]mplying that the outcome of this race portends anything about any conventional race next year amounts to cheap spin and drive-by 'analysis' of the most superficial kind, which is sadly becoming all too prevalent in Washington. There are a lot of folks in D.C. who would be well-served switching to decaf." Several of these writers point out, correctly, that there turned out to be little precdental value in Democratic victories in special elections in 2009 in the New York 20th and 23rd districts and in 2009 in the Pennsylvania 12th districts. Republicans gained 63 seats in November 2010 even so.

Nonetheless I think it has to be said that the Medicare issue helped the Democrat win an upset victory in a district that remained Republican even in the very Democratic years of 2006 and 2008. The 26th district voted 52%-46% for John McCain in 2008 and 55%-43% for George W. Bush in 2004. Even if you add to Corwin’s percentage the 9% of the votes cast for the self-financing Jack Davis, formerly the Democratic nominee here but this time running as the nominee of a self-concocted “tea party” party, the combined Republican+Davis percentage is just 52%, the same number John McCain won in his losing race , and significantly short of the 55% George W. Bush won in his (nationally) winning race and far less than the 66% and 60% won by the Republican candidates for state controller and attorney general in the district in 2010 (percentages which may be elevated due to the local popularity of Republican governor nominee, Buffalo-based Carl Paladino, who carried western New York by a wide margin but bombed almost everywhere else in New York state). These numbers were no worse for Republicans than 2008, but no better either. And so at least in this race in this district the Republican was clearly not running up to 2010 levels.

So I agree wholeheartedly with my Examiner colleague Conn Carroll, Republicans need to go on the offensive on Medicare. Or as the Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote in his analysis: “Republican leaders believe in their agenda and are not likely to back away from it just because they lost one House seat, particularly one that they could very well win back in 2012. But they have not yet won the argument over how best to deal with the country’s fiscal problems. They have accepted the responsibility to propose. Now they will need to learn how to persuade.”

Yes, there were special factors that hurt Republicans here, including Davis’s candidacy (he was up to 24% in polls at one point) and his endorsement by David Bellavia, an Iraq war veteran who was disappointed that he did not receive the Republican nomination. Another problem was candidate quality. Jane Corwin, by her own admission, did not respond sufficiently to the attacks on Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. She was a rich woman who looked like a China doll rich woman running in a district better suited to a rough hewn candidate. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Henry Olsen points out, Corwin ran particularly poorly in blue collar Republican areas.

Under New York law, candidates in special elections are nominated by county party leaders, and in all three recent New York special elections the party leaders chose a member of the New York Assembly. All three lost. Polls show that New York voters have a particularly low regard for their state legislature, and with good reason: the two chambers are run pretty much singlehandedly by their leaders—the Republican state Senate majority leader and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (who has held that office since 1994). Other members collect salaries and perks and vote the way they’re told. Assembly Republicans are a particularly forlorn group, since they are hugely outnumbered (100-48 after the 2010 election). There must be some smart Assembly Republicans, but serving in a heavily outnumbered party in a chamber dominated by one individual during sessions that place take in Albany in the winter—well, let’s just saying it doesn’t sound like the most attractive job for a politically talented individual. Memo to New York Republican county leaders: next time you have a special election, nominate someone who is not a member of the Assembly.  

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Michael Barone

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