In a victory certain to be read by many as a positive omen for House Democrats looking forward to the 2012 general elections and a warning for Republicans, Democrat Kathy Hochul won the closely watched special election to fill a vacant seat in a congressional district that until now has been reliably Republican.
Late in the evening, Hochul was beating Republican Jane Corwin by 6 percentage points, 48 percent versus 42 percent with 87 percent of the precincts reporting. Tea Party movement candidate Jack Davis had 9 percent of the vote.
The race was seen as a referendum on the House Republican Medicare plan associated with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that would privatize the popular entitlement program. Republicans have proposed giving future seniors money to purchase health insurance from private insurers.
The proposed changes to the program have proved controversial, raising anxieties in many seniors and middle aged Americans, concerns Democrats have been quick to turn against Republicans.
Hochul was one of those Democrats, riding the Medicare issue all the way to Congress in a race in which she had initially trailed behind her Republican opponent.
Denise Jewell Gee of The Buffalo News reports that in her victory speech, Hochul acknowledged the importance of the Medicare issue. From Gee's coverage:
"Yes, we are all future seniors, that's for sure. It's the future seniors they were going after, and we didn't like that did we?"
The vacancy in New York's 26th Congressional District occurred after the former Republican congressman, Chris Lee, was resigned after a woman claimed that after making contact with her through a Craig's List personal, the married Lee had sent her photos of himself in which he was shirtless.
The race took on far more importance than the typical congressional election in a single district. Because it was seen to have become a proxy battle in the larger war over Medicare, both Republican and Democratic groups pumped money into the race to purchase time for TV commercials.
So important was the outcome seen to be that the White House issued a statement from President Obama who is out of the country in Europe:
I want to extend my congratulations to Congresswoman-elect Kathy Hochul for her victory in New York's 26th Congressional District. Kathy and I both believe that we need to create jobs, grow our economy, and reduce the deficit in order to outcompete other nations and win the future. Kathy has shown, through her victory and throughout her career, that she will fight for the families and businesses in western New York, and I look forward to working with her when she gets to Washington.
The victory was sure to give Democrats a much needed psychological boost after the pummeling they took in the 2010 mid-term elections because of the Affordable Care Act and the economy.
But because it was a three-way race Republicans would be able to argue that Medicare wasn't the decisive factor in the outcome. Instead they could point to third-party candidate Davis, who took nearly a tenth of the vote, as a spoiler.
Nevertheless, the result was sure to be interpreted by Democrats as a repudiation of the Republican agenda as surely as Republicans said the election of Sen. Scott Brown in January 2010 was a repudiation of the new health care law. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.