Last night, in the 26th District of New York, a special election was held to fill the vacant congressional seat of Republican Chris Lee, who resigned in February (following a sex scandal where he advertised a shirtless photo of himself on Craigslist).
The 26th District, in upstate New York, is very Republican. To give some perspective, the district, which spans from Rochester to Buffalo, has 27,000 more Republicans than Democrats, voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 (he won by 6 percentage points), and has had just three Democrats represent it in the last 150 years. The 26th is about as red as they come.
Three candidates vied for the empty seat: Democrat Kathy Hochul, her Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis.
Yesterday Hochul defeated Corwin in the special election. Hochul received 47% of the vote, with Corwin earning 43%, and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis earning 8%.
This is a big win for Democrats, coming in such a heavily Republican district. And while one might say that the Tea Party candidate was a "spoiler" who took victory from the GOP, that would be wrong. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com points out, the results from last night still would have been bad for Republicans if Corwin had received all of the votes for Davis. If Corwin had somehow received all of the votes for Davis, a dubious proposition at best, she would still have only won by four points.
In fact, in a district so heavily dominated by Republicans someone like Corwin should be able to easily win a special election. In 2010 Republican Chris Lee, later forced to resign because of the infamous Craigslist scandal, won the seat by a 48-point margin (74%-26%).
So how did Hochel win? And can Democrats benefit from this in 2012?
Hochel's campaign was almost a one-note campain: she focussed on entitlements. Specifically, she put herself on the side of seniors when it came to Medicare. The Republicans, as you know, want to scrap Medicare and replace it with vouchers. (Interestingly, they accused Obamacare of doing that, which it didn't).
This put her opponent on the defensive for the whole campaign. You see, Republicans like to pretend that they are doing something noble, something fair — in the interest of asking all Americans to sacrifice. The problem is that they’re not asking oil and gas companies to sacrifice. They’re not asking multimillionaires to sacrifice. But they're asking seniors to give up on Medicare. That does not resonate well.
So expect Medicare to be a very important part of the 2012 election. It will be a topic on which Democrats can make significant in-roads with independants and, yes, even Tea Partiers.