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Win or Lose, NY-26 Is No Bellwether

Although the results of the special election for New York’s 26th Congressional District won’t be known until sometime tonight, the Democrats are already preparing to spin a victory in that race as not only a rebuke to Republicans who want to reform Medicare but the moment when they began to take back control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats have good reason to be optimistic about the outcome. This is a district with a big Republican registration advantage, but morale of the local GOP was depressed by the absurd scandal that brought down incumbent Congressman Christopher Lee only a few months after an easy reelection victory. Democrats have run a strong campaign, bringing in tons of outside money and have an attractive candidate in Kathy Hochul, who has worked hard to tie Republican Jane Corwin to Paul Ryan’s controversial Medicare reform plan.

But as even savvy liberal analysts like the New York Times’s Nate Silver have written, NY-26 is no bellwether. The presence of third-party candidate Jack Davis on the ballot makes it difficult to interpret tonight’s results. Davis was the Democrats’ standard-bearer in this district in 2004, 2006, and 2008, but is now running on a Tea Party line in spite of the fact that he has nothing to do with the national movement of that name. By splitting the GOP vote, Davis’s false-flag candidacy has played a key role in transforming a safe Republican seat into a competitive one.

Davis’s influence on the outcome has been largely under-reported, especially in stories in national outlets that have tried to paint the special election as a referendum on Ryan’s Medicare plan. If Hochul winds up winning with a total in the mid-40’s (as late polls indicate she might) that will approximate past Democratic results in that district for both Congressional and presidential races, it will be a stretch to say that it means that the people of suburban Buffalo are telling the country to reject the GOP’s budget plans.

That said, Republicans shouldn’t be too blasé about the results.

First, because even though Democratic spin about this being a rejection of Ryan might be bogus, a story repeated as often as this one will tend to be accepted as the truth. At this point, Republican arguments that point to Davis’s spoiler role will be dismissed as sour grapes.

Second, there is a real danger that a reverse in New York-26 will give the Democrats enough momentum to carry this theme into districts that will be a fairer test. With Republicans like Senator Scott Brown already defecting from the ranks of Ryan’s supporters, we should expect more to do so if Corwin loses.

Of course, should Corwin come from behind and hold onto the seat for the Republicans, no one will hear anything more from the national media about this seat’s being a bellwether.