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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Special Lesson in New York

Try as they may, national Republicans are having trouble spinning the results from yesterday’s special election in the 26th congressional district of New York, in which Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin, as anything other than a big setback. Yes, there was a third party candidate in the race running on a “Tea Party” label, but as Nate Silver explains, that’s not enough to account for the loss of this profoundly Republican seat:

Ms. Hochul, with most of the vote counted, has 48 percent of the total…. The rest of the vote was split between the Republican, Jane Corwin, with 42 percent, the the Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, with 9 percent, and the Green Party’s Ian Miller, with 1 percent.
Suppose that Mr. Davis and Mr. Miller were not running, and that this were a true two-way race between Ms. Hochul and Ms. Corwin. If Ms. Corwin had won all of Mr. Davis’s vote (and Ms. Hochul won all of Mr. Miller’s vote), she would have won 51-49.
That would still qualify as a bad night for the Republicans, however. Based on the way that the district votes in presidential elections, it is 6 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. That means, roughly speaking, that in a neutral political environment with average candidates, Ms. Corwin would have won 56 percent of the vote and Ms. Hochul 44 percent — a 12-point victory. A 2-point win instead, therefore, would have spoken to a relatively poor political environment for the Republicans.
Nor is it likely that Ms. Corwin would in fact have won all of Mr. Davis’s votes. He ran in the district as a Democrat in 2006, and polls suggested that his voters leaned Republican by roughly a 2-1 margin, but not more than that. If you had split his vote 2-1 in favor of Ms. Corwin, the results would have been Ms. Hochul 51 percent, and Ms. Corwin 48 percent.

Hochul won, moreover, despite a major financial disadvantage, as noted by David Nir of Daily Kos:

The GOP spent an absolute fortune on this race. Not counting outside money, Corwin alone spent about $2.6 million of her own money to get about 40,000 votes. That comes out to $68/vote. By contrast, Meg Whitman spent approximately $144 million out of her own pocket — a record — to net about 4 million votes in last year’s gubernatorial race in California. That comes out to roughly $35/vote. Kathy Hochul raised very well, but she was most certainly outspent.
As for outside money, the main spenders for Corwin were $700K by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, $100K by the American Action Network, and $425K by the NRCC (totaling about $1.2 million). For Hochul, it wound up as $371K from the House Majority PAC, $111K from the Communications Workers of America, $75K from 1199 SEIU 1199, and $267K from the DCCC (totalling $824K). Hochul herself raised around a million bucks.

Given the heavy focus of advertising on both sides to the Medicare issue, there’s not a whole lot of doubt that it had a whole lot to do with the results. Even if it didn’t, something’s happened to stop the incredible momentum the GOP had during the last two years, and the already-tense atmosphere among Republicans owing to private divisions over Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is certain to get worse.
Special elections should never be over-interpreted as harbingers of the future, but this one presents lessons to the GOP on the potential costs of extremism that cannot be missed.

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