NY-26: What It Means

CHRIS PUMMER: No matter what the circumstances that make the special election in NY-26 unique, the GOP was bound to walk away with egg on its face having to defend a U.S. House seat in a race that shouldn’t have been competitive.

There’s no doubt the House vote to approve a budget plan that changed Medicare into a voucher program was a key in the eventual outcome of Democrat Kathy Hochul beating Republican Jane Corwin. It now looks like Republicans have two choices:

The first would be doubling down on their plan to fundamentally change Medicare. While it might seem counterintuitive, the ability of a GOP House to keep its members marching in lockstep to this point means they are serious enough about this option.

That might not be possible as Senate Republicans are already leaping away from the chance to fall on their swords in the name of some right-wing wonk’s ideology.

The other option is going to be to hope that time heals this wound, and perhaps put aside the unified front in favor of letting more vulnerable members of the caucus try to wiggle away from the ill advised vote taken last month that seems to, at best, temporarily pacify the staunchest of small-government types. Keep in mind that a few of them still aren’t happy.

It will remain an issue. Democrats will spend plenty of campaign cash to make sure to that.

JESSICA BADER: It’s tempting to look at the special election in New York’s 26th congressional district as the mirror image of the special election for a Senate seat in Massachusetts a little over a year ago. There are surface similarities – shortly after a party-line vote on a bill that would have a major impact on the health-care system, the majority party loses an open-seat special election in a state or district that’s usually safe. But even a cursory glance beneath the surface reveals significant differences.

First, NY-26 is not quite as red as Massachusetts is blue. The Bay State’s Cook PVI (a measure of how much a state or district differs from the national average in presidential elections) is D + 12, tying it with Hawaii as the second-bluest state (Vermont tops the list at D + 13). NY-26 has a Cook PVI of R + 6, making it the kind of district the GOP carries even in a year like 2008, but it’s not even close to the top of the list of reddest districts. In fact, even after the Republican wave of 2010, Democrats still held eight House seats with PVIs of R+6 or redder, with NY-26 becoming the ninth after Kathy Hochul’s victory tonight.

Second, while it will be the topic of much discussion and may impact how members of Congress think, Hochul’s victory will have almost no change on the balance of power. Democrats are still deep in the minority in the strictly majoritarian House of Representatives, and will need to gain about two dozen seats in the 2012 elections to regain the majority. What made Scott Brown’s victory so significant was that Brown gave the Republicans their 41st seat in the Senate – just enough to sustain a filibuster on anything they wanted to block. It’s not a coincidence that most of the 111th Congress’s major progressive accomplishments took place in 2009, not 2010.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Massachusetts election was supposedly a referendum on legislation that had a plausible path towards actually becoming law. Brown’s election complicated and delayed final passage of the Affordable Care Act, but did not stop it, largely because the Senate had already passed its version of the bill before the election and thus all that was needed to avoid death-by-filibuster was for the House to pass the Senate bill. No matter who had won the NY-26 election, Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan never had a feasible path towards becoming law in this Congress, as Republicans do not hold a majority of seats in the Senate, much less a supermajority, and no Senate Democrats would cross the aisle to vote for it. (Not even the most conservative House Democrats, representing R + 14 or R + 15 districts, voted in favor of Ryan’s plan during the House’s debate over the 2012 budget).

Massachusetts it ain’t, but NY-26 still reinforces some valuable political lessons. First, if your party’s highly successful 2010 campaign strategy centered around attacking opponents over Medicare cuts, it might not be such a good idea to make privatizing Medicare a key part of your 2011 legislative agenda. Second, making your caucus walk the plank on a controversial vote is best reserved for agenda items with a chance at actually becoming law. Finally, posting a shirtless photo of yourself on Craigslist is far more trouble than it’s worth.

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