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Buffalo Wild Win

How Kathy Hochul won, and why it spells trouble for the GOP in 2012.

Buffalo—Democrat Kathy Hochul bounded to the stage of a union hall in Amherst, just northeast of Buffalo, late Tuesday as the newly elected congresswoman from the ruby red congressional district that brought us Jack Kemp, Bill Paxon, and Tom Reynolds. After all the requisite hugs and thank yous, she mentioned her plans to fight to close corporate tax loopholes and make millionaires pay their fair share. “We can do all that,” she said, “and not decimate Medicare.” Hearing that single word, the crowd erupted with the mantra of the Hochul campaign. “Medicare! Medicare! Medicare!”

The Hochul message—the one that was a winner for her—could be seen on signs all around New York’s Twenty-Sixth District, from the sprawling strip malls of Buffalo’s wealthiest suburbs to the faded farms of Genesee County to the lawns of neat old houses to the west of Rochester. “Save Medicare/Vote Hochul,” the signs said. Six and a half months after Republicans regained the House and three months after the seat’s most recent occupant, Republican Chris Lee, resigned after flexing his biceps for the wrong other woman on Craigslist, Hochul showed congressional Democrats that they have some reason for hope in 2012.

The Democrats won because they had the right message and the right candidate and the blessing of weak opposition. Hochul won by 48 percent to 42 percent over Republican Jane Corwin, a self-funded millionairess delivering an austere 2010 message a few months too late. “Tea Party” candidate Jack Davis drew 9 percent of the vote, but, given that two late polls showed voters abandoning Davis for Hochul, it’s fair to assume that Hochul would have won regardless of whether Davis, a former Democrat, had run.

Hochul started talking about preserving Medicare as a government-guaranteed benefit in ads and on the trail beginning April 15, a date that could become to House Republicans what the Ides of March was to Caesar. That’s the day the House passed Representative Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint, replete with its plan to replace Medicare with a private voucher system for anyone younger than 55. That very day, Corwin said she would have voted for the Ryan budget. And, a few days later, the Hochul campaign responded with a tough ad warning that the GOP budget plan would “essentially end Medicare” and cost the average senior an extra $6,400.

The ad was misleading. While the Ryan budget would raise the cost of care for those now under 55, it would not end Medicare for today’s retirees. But the message, which Hochul repeated incessantly on the campaign trail, resonated in a district where 22 percent of voters are over age 65. By the end of April, a Siena Research Institute poll found residents of the district opposing Medicare and Social Security cuts by a 59 percent to 38 percent margin. The poll also showed Hochul only five points behind Corwin in a race that, until that point, looked to New York political pros like a Corwin landslide in the making.

Inexplicably, Corwin, a businesswoman-turned-state assemblywoman, found herself utterly flat-footed in trying to respond on the Medicare issue. Asked by The Buffalo News in early May about Congressional Budget Office figures showing that the Ryan plan could cost future seniors upward of $7,000 a year more for health care, she replied, “To be honest, I don't have figures on that.”

As Hochul’s campaign began to hit home, Corwin started inching away from the Ryan plan, calling it a great start but saying she would consider other alternatives to fixing Medicare. When the Corwin finally came up with a full-throated response to Hochul’s Medicare argument about a week before Election Day, it was a full-throated lie. “The truth is it’s Hochul who says she would cut Social Security and Medicare,” the ad  says—a claim that quickly labeled “bogus.” Conjured up out of a comment Hochul made about entitlements being “on the table” in budget talks, the ad resulted in devastating fact-checks in The Buffalo News and on Buffalo’s top-rated television station.

Corwin was unprepared in more ways than one. Privately, in retrospect, Republicans wonder if this well-dressed, Range Rover-driving businesswoman was the right fit in a district where the wealthy are concentrated in the Buffalo-area subdivisions near where Corwin lives. Both GOP consultants and voters complained about her designer handbags and aloof demeanor, which didn’t play so well with dairy farmers suffering the ups and downs of milk prices and blue-collar Republicans in the small towns that dot the district.

Corwin also botched her response to Davis’s “Tea Party” candidacy. Davis, an anti-trade zealot and serial congressional candidate who ran three times as a Democrat, never was a serious threat to win, but he always was a serious threat to steal votes from Corwin. Yet the Corwin campaign didn’t bombard Davis with negative ads until late in the game—so late, in fact, that the ads appeared to do collateral damage to Corwin, whose negatives rose to near 50 percent in two polls as her harshly negative ad campaign wore on. 

Most inexplicably of all, the Corwin camp tried to stage a get-off-my-lawn fracas with the irascible Davis. On May 11, Corwin’s legislative chief of staff, video camera in hand, approached Davis after an event and demanded to know why the old man had refused to debate. Davis, predictably, lunged at the camera, prompting the Corwin staffer to squeal and the Erie County Republican Committee to release a bizarre video that raised more questions than it answered. quickly revealed that the videographer was on Corwin’s Assembly staff, prompting a media uproar that featured plenty of footage of Corwin rushing past reporters and refusing to discuss the incident.

In a district with nearly 30,000 more Republicans than Democrats, it’s possible a GOP candidate could survive such embarrassments—especially with the help of about $3 million in campaign cash plus at least another $1 million from the likes of the National Republican Congressional Committee and American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s SuperPAC. But all that money seemed to matter little in a race where the Democrats countered with a couple million of their own—and with an especially focused and articulate candidate.

From the Ryan budget vote onward, Hochul, the Erie County clerk, honed her campaign message around Medicare, and drove it home in interviews and visits to diners and farmer’s markets in every corner of the district. Forever beaming a broad Irish smile and peppering her flat and folksy speech with “I’ll tell ya” and references to the Buffalo Bills, Hochul struck voters as someone they could trust. “I like her,” said Regina Golanka, 73, of the small industrial city of North Tonawanda said after meeting Hochul. “She’s got more personality than that other one. She’s straightforward.”

Hochul is also just the sort of Democrat that won toss-up House seats in 2008 and 2010. She’s for raising taxes on the very wealthy—but not on people who make less than $500,000, a considerably higher threshold than most Democrats would set. She talks about going to Washington to make life easier for small business, and she goes there with a record of breaking with Democratic governors on issues like driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

She insisted, too, that her campaign was strictly a local affair of national significance. “My message is clear: That the voters of this district sent me to Washington because I said I would fight for them on Medicare, make sure the lobbyists pay their share, and get our budget under control,” she told reporters shortly after her victory speech. “I’m going to fight for the residents of the Twenty-Sixth District. So whatever happens nationally, I’m very focused on my new district.” But Democrats around the country know better. Hochul’s victory spells trouble for the Republicans and hope for the Democrats in the November 2012 elections.

Jerry Zremski is the Washington bureau chief of The Buffalo News.