New York's old people rebel
To the barricades for Medicare
A by-election may be a referendum on the Republicans’ health plans
May 12th 2011 | DEPEW, NEW YORK | from the print edition
NEW YORK is a blue state. Its governor, Andrew Cuomo, is a Democrat, as are its two senators. But chunks of it are very conservative, such as the reliably Republican 26th congressional district in western New York. It spans the suburbs of Buffalo, across hundreds of acres of farmland, to the suburbs of Rochester. Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats there by around 30,000. George Bush handily won the district in 2004, though he lost the state by 19 points. In 2008 it was one of only four New York districts that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. Chris Lee, the Republican who had represented the district since 2008, won a whopping 74% of the vote at the 2010 mid-term election. He stepped down in February after a gossip website posted shirtless pictures he had sent to a woman he had met on Craigslist.
The special election (as Americans call a by-election) to fill the Craigslist congressman’s empty seat will take place on May 24th. Jane Corwin, a wealthy conservative member of the state Assembly, should on past form be a shoo-in, but recent polls indicate she has an unexpected battle on her hands. According to one recent poll Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, is just a few points behind Ms Corwin, and another shows her in the lead. Jack Davis, the self-financed independent “tea-party” candidate, is also performing solidly in the polls. At first glance it appears that Mr Davis, a former Republican who also ran (unsuccessfully) for office as a Democrat, may be siphoning support away from Ms Corwin.
But the fall in Ms Corwin’s support could be more because of her endorsement of Paul Ryan’s proposal to replace Medicare, the public health-care scheme for the elderly, with diminishing government subsidies for private insurance. Her opponent, Ms Hochul, has made Medicare the main issue of her campaign. “We can alter the national debate with one election,” she says. Voting for her, she claims, would send a message to Republicans in Washington. She has received the backing of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which previously campaigned for the Republican who represented the area until 2008. Her message is going down well in the district, where almost a quarter of voters are over 65 and almost two-thirds are over 45.
A loss in the 26th would be a huge embarrassment for the Republicans, suggesting that many other seats might be at risk in 2012. So the party has been pumping money into the race, and has also started to send in the heavy artillery. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, campaigned for Ms Corwin last week, and John Boehner, the speaker of the House, appeared at a Corwin fund-raising lunch on May 9th. He said there that the “Democrats are hoping they can steal this election so they can continue to move their agenda, which is more taxes and higher spending.” This got loud jeers from the faithful, but it remains to be seen whether ordinary elderly voters will agree.
The turnout tends to be low in special elections, as elsewhere; but politicians can usually depend on older voters to make the effort. In the 26th district, the voting intentions of the elderly have never been more important.