TOPICS > Politics

Republicans Get Wake-Up Call From New York House Race Upset

May 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Democrats hailed Kathy Hochul's upset victory Tuesday in a special U.S. House election in New York where Republicans hold a considerable voter-registration advantage. Political Editor David Chalian and Judy Woodruff discuss what role the Republican Medicare plan played and what clues the election might offer for 2012's races.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to politics and the aftershocks from yesterday’s special U.S. House election in New York that reverberated throughout Washington today.

Democrats today hailed Kathy Hochul’s upset victory in a special U.S. House election in western New York State. The Erie County clerk seized on the U.S. House Republican plan to convert Medicare into a voucher system, while cutting billions from the program.

On Tuesday, Hochul won 47 percent of the vote in the state’s 26th Congressional District, where Republicans hold a heavy voter registration advantage. Republican Jane Corwin placed second with 43 percent, followed by Democrat-turned-Tea Party candidate Jack Davis at 9 percent. At a victory rally Tuesday night, Hochul supporters chanted, “Medicare, Medicare.”

KATHY HOCHUL, (D) New York congresswoman-elect: Tonight, we showed that voters are really willing to look beyond the party label and vote for the person and a message they believe in.


KATHY HOCHUL: And we showed that thousands and thousands and thousands of voters are more powerful than millions and millions of dollars of special interest money.  


NARRATOR: Hochul voted to raise property taxes, not once, not twice, but 11 times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Outside interest groups, including the conservative American Crossroads, spent more than $2 million on the race. In a statement, the group’s CEO, Steven Law, said, “What is clear is that this election is a wakeup call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan authored the Republican Medicare plan. Today, he warned against politicizing the issue at a Washington event hosted by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis. Budget Committee chairman: And what they do in this particular case with Medicare, they are shamelessly demagoguing it and distorting this — we call it Medi-scare — to try and scare seniors.

The irony of this is our plan actually preserves the benefit for current seniors. But trying to scare seniors and turning these things into political weapons, what that ends up doing is just inflicting political paralysis. That means nothing gets done. And that means we go farther down the path of debt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the same event, former President Bill Clinton cautioned Democrats to make sure they take away the right lesson from the outcome in New York.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I’m afraid that the Democrats will draw the conclusion that, because Congressman Ryan’s proposal, I think, is not the best one, that we shouldn’t do anything. And I completely disagree with that. I think there are lots of things you can do to bring down Medicare costs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, late this afternoon, Senate Democrats staged a vote on the Ryan plan, so as to highlight divisions within the GOP.

Its defeat was a foregone conclusion, with several Republicans joining majority Democrats, in opposing the plan.

Majority Leader Harry Reid urged Republicans to listen to the voters.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev. majority leader: Democrats in Congress and even some candid Republicans know the Republican plan to kill Medicare is irresponsible and indefensible. Last night, voters showed the country and the Congress that they know it, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Leader Mitch McConnell countered that Democrats were shirking their responsibilities by opposing Medicare reforms.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky. minority leader: Congressman Ryan has shown courage by proposing a budget that would tackle these problems. Democrats are showing none by ignoring our problems altogether.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in the short term, at least, Tuesday’s election win gives Democrats a boost, after last November’s drubbing at the polls.

And for more, we turn to NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian.

David, hello.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s talk about this race, this House race in New York. We are reporting on it, but it’s just one congressional district out of 435. Why are we making such a big deal out of it?

DAVID CHALIAN: You raise a good point.

I’m always a little careful to take a special election and try to draw large national trends that will tell us about the next election. But it does tell us something about our politics right now. We pay attention to this one because it’s a reliably Republican district and a Democrat won.

This is a district, Judy, that John McCain won by six points against Barack Obama in 2008 in an otherwise very blue New York State. This is really a ruby-red district, shouldn’t have been competitive for the Republicans, but for Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. That’s what made it competitive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what Democrats are playing up. They are saying that this was all about the role that Medicare played, the Paul

Ryan — is that — do we know for a fact that that was the defining issue here?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, there are no exit polls in this race, so we don’t have voters actually telling us that.

But we do know that it was the central issue up for debate. It is what dominated the television airwaves. It’s what dominated the conversation between the candidates. And there might have been some other factors there. You mentioned in your piece there the third-party candidate. Certainly, that helped draw some votes away from the Republican and make it competitive.

But let’s not make any bones about this. This Medicare plan was up on this ballot, basically, and the Republicans learned today — or last night in the results — they have got a serious problem in trying to defend this very unpopular plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, here we are, though, David. We’re May of the 2011, 18 months away from the election. Is this an issue that Democrats really believe they can ride all the way to the presidential election?

DAVID CHALIAN: I have no doubt that we will see this issue all the way through 2012.

I think we will see it in advertising. They certainly think that they have finally found something. We shouldn’t underestimate, Judy, the psychological impact for Democrats here. They have just spent, you remember, the last two years defending the stimulus bill, defending the health care bill, defending the cap-and-trade bill.

And, of course, we saw them lose 63 seats in the House last fall. This is their first moment of moving from defense to offense cause they have finally found something that they think they can hold on to.

But Bill Clinton’s words should be heeded. This is — here’s the rub, right? You have voters who are saying, we want the candidates that we vote for to address this spending and deficit issue. The problem is there’s no consensus yet about how to go about doing that.

What we learned last night, the Ryan plan is not how a majority of voters want to go about doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s — and then there’s irony here, which — which is that this is the very issue, health care, Medicare, treatment of seniors in the health care plan, that the Democrats were being beaten up on last year. They have now turned it around to their favor, at least temporarily.

DAVID CHALIAN: At least temporarily.

You remember part of President Obama’s health care plan was to get $500 billion in savings in Medicare, largely through Medicare Advantage. That is exactly what Republicans ran on last year, put it on their TV ads. They said, you are hurting Medicare, you’re hurting seniors.

So, the Republicans — this is a complete reversal of what we saw last year. And now the Democrats are trying to use it to their political advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. So let’s now finally talk about the budget vote. The Paul Ryan plan did come up in the Senate, voted down. A number of Republicans — a few Republicans sided with the Democrats.

Where does the budget debate stand right now?

DAVID CHALIAN: Right. Five Republicans sided with the Democrats, many — some of those from blue states like Massachusetts and Maine and what have you. It only got 40 votes in the Senate, the Ryan plan.

Right now, Vice President Biden is heading up these negotiations between the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats. They are trying to reach a deal on spending cuts in order to raise the debt limit by Aug. 2.

We — yesterday, Vice President Biden held yet another meeting with these leaders. And they came out. Everyone, all sides, says real progress is being made. They have kind of come to agreement on about a trillion dollars worth of cuts, so they’re trying to move down the pike to get that debt limit issue taken care of.

The other larger factor — and this is when you ask, is this going to be an issue to 2012? Here’s the big X-factor, Judy. If indeed both parties can come together on some bipartisan grand bargain of entitlement reform to really tackle the long-term debt and deficit, then this issue goes away as a political cudgel for either side, right, if there’s an actual bipartisan agreement.

But that is unclear, that that is going to be reached any time soon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a tough one, David.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We will keep watching it.

David Chalian, thanks very much.