Backlash in the real world

    Normally, in the absence of Republican bungling, I wouldn’t need to write so much as a syllable about the special congressional election that will be staged two weeks from today in upstate New York.The 26th District, up near Rochester and Buffalo, is traditional Republican turf; GOP registrants outnumber Democratic registrants by 30,000, the district’s ’08 voters favored John McCain over Barack Obama by six points, and the Republicans have held the House seat in that region for decades. So when Internet sex cruiser Christopher Lee quit the seat back in February, everybody knew and assumed that popular Republican state assemblywoman Jane Corwin would get the job by cruising to victory in the special election. End of non-story.But hang on a second: Why was House Speaker John Boehner touring the district with Corwin yesterday, headlining her luncheon fundraiser, and claiming that the Democrats are trying to “steal” the election? Why would Boehner need to go up there at all? And why is a group affiliated with Karl Rove suddenly dumping $600,000 worth of ads into the race? Wasn’t this race supposed to be a slam dunk for the GOP?Well, yes, it was…until the House Republicans decided last month to indulge their most fervent ideological proclivities and pass a bill that would eradicate Medicare.Before the House Republicans voted to target guaranteed health care for seniors, Jane Corwin had a lock on the upstate seat, buoyed by a hefty poll lead over her Democratic opponent, Erie County clerk Kathy Hochul. But in the weeks since that Medicare vote, Corwin’s poll lead has evaporated. Hochul has now deadlocked the race; in one poll, she has even nosed ahead.Yesterday, a Corwin spokesman voiced my favorite political cliche: “We’re very comfortable with where we are.” When a flak says that, what he’s really saying is this: “We are scared witless.”Should we be surprised by this hairpin turn of events? Not in the slightest. As I wrote here several weeks ago, it’s political folly to go after the popular Medicare program. It has always been that way, going back half a century. Only a purblind conservative ideologue could possibly think otherwise. Voters may talk in the abstract about cutting deficits and balancing budgets, but in reality their basic attitude is, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”And now, predictably, the Republicans are paying the consequences in a special House election race that should never be competitive at all.Hochul, the Democrat, has been banging away at that anti-Medicare vote for weeks, and reaping the political rewards in a district where the majority of registered voters are age 45 and older. Just as significantly, Corwin has not only refused to distance herself from the vote, she has vigorously embraced it – claiming that the House Republican move to dismantle Medicare actually “protects” Medicare.No wonder Corwin’s fortunes have fallen so precipitously. A Siena College poll, released on April 29, found that voters even in this strongly Republican district are strongly averse to messing with Medicare. Fifty-nine percent said they oppose cutting Medicare even if the aim is to trim the budget deficit. That’s no surprise; in a recent national poll, 76 percent of Americans said it’s unacceptable to cut Medicare. (The Siena poll also had Corwin up by five points over Hochul, but nonpartisan observers view those April stats as outdated.)In short, this special election cliffhanger is what happens when ideologues in Washington are allowed to run the show. Typically, there is a backlash in the real word. Hochul says that the targeting of Medicare has created “a clear choice” in her race.Corwin is hewing to her shelve-Medicare stance, however. Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs, and clearly her strategists are seeking to attract the impassioned conservatives who oppose traditional Medicare on principle. The thinking is, maybe those voters will be sufficient to put her over the top.But there’s a complicating factor. Corwin is plagued by a third candidate – Jack Davis, a former Democrat who’s running as an independent with backing from the Tea Party Coalition (a western New York tea-partying group). The polls now show that Davis is hurting Corwin more than he’s hurting Hochul. Why? Because Davis appears to be a comfortable landing spot for the Republicans who dislike the anti-Medicare vote, but can’t bring themselves to back Hochul.No wonder Boehner showed up to help bail water from the boat. Even if his candidate ekes out a win, the point has already been made: That House Republican vote against Medicare is potentially toxic in 2012. If a Republican candidate can’t cruise in a solid Republican enclave, what does that portend for swing districts next year?

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