Reaping the whirlwind

    Well, this is what happens when out-of-the-mainstream Washington ideologues try to turn back the clock. The voters in the real world clean their clock.Two weeks ago, while previewing the May 24 special congressional election in upstate New York, I stated the obvious: “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.” Collectively, the House Republicans thought otherwise when they voted in mid-April to essentially privatize Medicare. By doing so, they invited a voter backlash – and last night, predictably, they reaped the whirlwind. They coughed up a House seat in a conservative region of upstate New York that had previously elected only three Democrats since 1857. In hindsight, I was wrong two weeks ago when I foresaw that this special election would be a “cliffhanger.” It was not. In the race to replace Internet sex cruiser Christopher Lee (the purported pro-morality conservative who quit in February), Democrat Kathy Hochul, who looked like a sacrificial lamb a mere six weeks ago, scored a decisive win over Republican Jane Corwin and a third candidate (an ex-Republican turned Democrat turned tea-partier) who was barely a factor in the end.I’ll spare you the predictable Republican claim that the results were not a referendum on the kill-Medicare plan. Their spin began even before the votes were in. To borrow a phrase from rock n’ roller Keith Richards, this spin is grist for “legs-in-the-air laughter.” The time line tells the true tale. Corwin was a cinch winner for the seat that was once held by conservative icon Jack Kemp – until the House Republicans voted to scissor the Medicare safety net. That’s when her poll numbers started to head south. As she defended the kill-Medicare vote, her poll numbers fell further. Washington Republicans and their conservative interest group allies pumped scads of emergency money into the race (they ultimately outspent the Democrats and their liberal allies by 2-1), but nothing worked. In a mid-May poll by the Siena Research Institute, a 21 percent plurality of likely voters cited Medicare as the top issue in the race – and they were breaking heavily for Hochul. Late in the game, Corwin essentially acknowledged the Medicare albatross when she sought to distance herself from the House Republican plan. All of a sudden, she started to insist that she wasn’t “married” to privatization. But that manuever didn’t help, either. (Why would it? By distancing herself, she basically confirmed that the plan was a loser.) She wound up losing last night by roughly four percentage points in a rural-suburban district where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats by 30,000.Today, the last refuge for Republican spinners will be the presence in the race of third-party candidate Jack Davis, who ran on the tea-party line. They’ll argue that this election doesn’t count as a referendum on Medicare because it wasn’t a two-party contest. But two weeks ago, when Davis was polling above 20 percent, the Republicans assailed him in TV ads, painting him as a faux tea-partier, and they insisted that Davis’ conservative supporters would come home to Corwin in the end. This scenario did not occur. Davis took only nine percent of the vote, and Hochul won solidly. Indeed, whereas in 2008 Barack Obama got only 46 percent of the district’s votes in a two-way, Hochul got 47 percent in a three-way.

    But at least one veteran Republican strategist, Mark Murphy, copped to reality today. He wrote: “For months, many of the GOP’s most caffeinated tea party freshman having been waving Seppuku knives around and claiming to be ready to lose the next election on their principles. It just happened.”

    For Kathy Hochul to win decisively in a scarlet-red Republican district, she needed a lot of Republican voters. She got them, and that should hardly rank as a surprise. Every national poll in recent months has made it clear that Republican voters generally want to preserve guaranteed government health care for seniors; as Gallup reported in April, only 14 percent of Republicans (yup, 14 percent) agreed that “government should completely overhaul Medicare to control the cost of the program.” On the eve of the kill-Medicare vote, GOP strategists in Washington reportedly tried to enlighten the House Republicans about the realities of public sentiment – to no avail. In hock to their tea-party flank, they voted for privatization anyway, and they put Jane Corwin in a box with no escape.Now they’re stuck with the consequences. At best, they’ve blundered into a public relations disaster. At worst, they’ve given the Democrats a potent weapon to wield against them in 2012. So I’ll just repeat the question I posed two weeks ago, when the plot arc in upstate New York was becoming clear: If a Republican House candidate can’t cruise to victory in a solid Republican enclave, what does that portend for swing districts next year?

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