A special congressional election in western New York on Tuesday could offer an early answer to one of the key questions of the 2012 election cycle: Will Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to reshape Medicare cost the GOP at the ballot box?
In the three-way race in New York's 26th Congressional District, the GOP has found itself hard-pressed to retain the seat that Rep. Christopher John Lee abruptly abandoned this year after the married father was nabbed sending shirtless pictures of himself to a woman whom he met online.
The contest to replace Mr. Lee pits Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin against Democrat Kathy Hochul, a county clerk, and Democrat turned tea party champion Jack Davis.
The district would seem like a natural for Republicans, who have lost eight of the past 10 special elections nationwide. It contains 27,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, and backed George W. Bush for president in 2004, John McCain for president in 2008 and Carl P. Paladino for governor last year.
But what looked like a slam-dunk for the GOP has turned into a nail-biter. The latest Siena College poll of likely voters shows Mrs. Hochul holding a four-point edge over Mrs. Corwin and a double-digit lead over Mr. Davis.
Perhaps more significant, 21 percent of respondents said Medicare was the most important issue for them in the special election. Of those, 74 percent supported Mrs. Hochul - a finding that suggests Democrats have turned the race into a proxy battle over the Corwin-supported House GOP plan to restructure Medicare and reduce its costs.
"After losing local races that Republicans should have won, they have now been forced to spend millions of dollars to try and win an overwhelmingly Republican district because voters are rejecting their plan to end Medicare," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
With that as a backdrop, the candidates spent the final days of the campaign crisscrossing the Buffalo-area district, delivering their final sales pitches and urging voters to head to the polls. Outside political groups, meanwhile, continued their spending sprees, pouring money into last-minute mailings and television and radio advertisements.
Freed by recent court rulings to raise and spend more money, these groups have funneled more than $2 million into the race, most of it for attack ads, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Karl Rove's American Crossroads and the National Rifle Association have given their support to Mrs. Corwin, while the Service Employees International Union and the Communication Workers of America are among those supporting Mrs. Hochul.
Losing the New York seat would be the biggest electoral embarrassment of the year for Republicans, who have had mixed results at the polls after picking up 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate in the November elections.
In April, they scored their biggest victory by winning the heated Wisconsin Supreme Court race that centered on public-sector unions and collective-bargaining rights.
Democrats countered with upsets elsewhere, by taking a special-election race for a state legislative seat in a GOP-friendly New Hampshire district and then winning a Jacksonville, Fla., mayoral race for the first time since 1991.
"The tailwind that brought Republicans to the 63 margin is gone," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). "We are back to a more normal setting."
Analysts say it is hard to glean much from special and off-year elections, but it's clear that the New York race has been a testing ground for the deficit-reduction plan of Mr. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman. Mr. Ryan is calling for $6.2 billion in cuts from projected deficits over 10 years, in part by transforming Medicare into a voucherlike program.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics said the Ryan budget has proved to be a powerful weapon for Democrats.
"Their attacks on Republican Jane Corwin over her support of the Medicare changes in that budget seem to have gotten traction," Mr. Kondik said. "This race is definitely a preview of the attacks that the Democrats are going to mount in next year's campaign."
If so, Mr. Davis said, the message could hinder efforts on Capitol Hill to make the spending cuts necessary to get a better handle on the nation's trillion-dollar deficits and $14.3 trillion national debt.
"You can't have a meaningful budget discussion over the long term without talking about the growth in Medicare," he said.
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