House Speaker John Boehner’s trip to Western New York today to support Jane Corwin in her effort to hold a seemingly safe seat for the Republicans is just the latest indication that he and his party understand what is at stake in the special election to replace Congressman Christopher Lee. Lee was forced to resign after he posted a shirtless photo of himself on the Internet while trolling for women. But though the married politician’s mind-numbingly stupid act subjected the political class to yet more scorn for their morals, it was not supposed to affect the political balance of power, let alone serve as a staging point for a Democratic revival.
But the confluence of the special election set for May 24 and the divisive debate over House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare as part of an overall effort to deal with the nation’s debt crisis has encouraged Democrats to believe that they can swipe New York’s 26th district, a seat that has been safely Republican for decades. A Siena College poll of likely voters released on April 29 showed GOP candidate state assemblywoman Jane Corwin with a lead of 36 percent to 31 percent over Erie County clerk Kathy Hochul, the Democrat. Adding to the GOP’s woes is the presence on the ballot of Jack Davis, a former Democrat running on the Tea Party line. The poll showed Davis getting 23 percent.
Hochul has appeared to make progress in recent weeks by attacking Corwin for her support of Ryan’s proposals. The Democrats are going all out to label the Ryan panel as a heartless Republican plot to hurt seniors while ignoring the fact that, as a Washington Post editorial noted yesterday, the Obama administration’s own plans for Medicare are far more draconian. Demagoguery on entitlements is nothing new in politics but given the growing national consensus that something must be done about Medicare before it bankrupts the health care system and the nation, the Democrats’ opportunism here is particularly loathsome.
But that still leaves the Republicans playing defense in the suburban Buffalo district. With the Democrats smelling blood, you can bet that the last two weeks of this campaign are going to get nastier. All politics may be local but given the Republican registration advantage, any major shift in a district that backed John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 and reelected the feckless Lee with no fuss this past November, would rightly be interpreted as more than a blow to the House majority. A Democratic win there will be trumpeted as a devastating riposte to the Ryan plan and encourage President Obama and the rest of his party to spend the next year and a half howling about mean budget-cutting Republicans.
Some Republicans have expressed ambivalence about Ryan’s bold and much needed plan in large part because they are terrified about confronting entitlements and asking voters to do the right thing rather than support more spending. But if the Democrats succeed in Western New York later this month, it will make it even harder for both this Congress and the one that follows in 2012 to put together a meaningful effort to deal with the massive growth of entitlements and the budget crisis this spending has created. And that will be bad news for the country as well as the GOP.