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The Bigger Message From NY-26

In politics, it’s not always whether you win, sometimes the places you lose, and the way you lose them, can be just as informative.

Democrats are celebrating their win in New York’s 26th congressional district. A few months ago, their candidate Kathy Hochul was seen to be a distant also-ran in a solid Republican district. Now, according to still uncertified results she’s congresswoman-elect.

Kathy Hochul; photo by Alan Bedenko/Buffalo Pundit via FlickrAnd there will likely be recriminations in the Republican Party over the cause of the demise. Some have already said Republican candidate Jane Corwin ran a poor campaign and analysts have pointed to the impact of alleged Tea Party candidate Jack Davis. Democrats, meanwhile, have hammered away at Rep. Paul Ryan’s plans to restructure Medicare as the primary reason.

NY-26 is surely just one race, but viewed through Patchwork Nation, its results hold what look to be some disturbing trends for the GOP.

It isn’t just that Hochul won, just as interesting is the counties she lost by close margins — particularly the small-town Service Worker Center counties that make up large swaths of the district. Her performance in those counties — Genesee, Livingston, Niagra, Orleans and Wyoming — combined with news from other similar places suggest the 2012 presidential race may be taking shape along 2008 lines, at least viewed from this moment in 2011.

A Message in Five Counties

In the end, one can look at Tuesday’s results and argue that Hochul won for one reason — Erie County, a big city Industrial Metropolis county in Patchwork Nation that is home to Buffalo. She carried the vote in the county by more than 5,000 and she wound up winning by a margin of about 4,600. Voila.

But those five counties listed above are just as significant to understanding the meaning of NY-26, maybe even more so.

As we have noted often on this blog and in longer-term reporting, the Service Worker Centers, have long tended to vote Republican and often by sizable margins.

These 660 counties gave George W. Bush a 14-percent margin of victory in 2000 and a 17-percent margin of victory in 2004. In 2008, Sen. John McCain won them by only 5 percentage points, but by the 2010 midterms they looked solidly Republican again — GOP congressional candidates won the counties by some 12 percentage points.

What does that have to do with NY-26? Well, those trends were mirrored in the five Service Worker counties in the district through 2010. And Hochul’s numbers in those Service Worker counties look a lot like Obama’s 2008 numbers in them — eerily so.

In Genesee, Hochul took 39 percent, Obama had 40. In Livingston it was 42 Hochul, 45 Obama. In Niagra, 47 for Hochul, 47 for Obama. In Orleans, 40 for Hochul, 41 for Obama. In Wyoming, 36 for Hochul and 36 for Obama.

Out of those five counties, Hochul only won in Niagra, but it was her better performance in the other counties that allowed her to win with a 5,500-vote margin in Erie.

Why did Hochul do better in those counties? A lot of polling will help tell the tale, but there are a few things of note in the Service Worker Centers.

First, they are not only small-town, lightly populated counties. Their populations tend to be older than average. They are the kinds of places, in other words, that may be upset about things like restructuring Medicare. Second, they have been hit hard by the recession and while people in them may understand the need for belt-tightening, they also may be less interested in tax cuts for the wealthy, which is another big part of Ryan’s plan.

The Meaning Outside New York

Of course, it’s true that Tuesday’s special election was still just a temperature-taking in New York — and actually just a corner of New York. But as we have written on this blog in the last few weeks, many of the Service Worker Center counties in Wisconsin seem unhappy with the GOP as well.

Whatever anger there is in that state stems from Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan hit at the ability for public sector unions to do collective bargaining. There are many public-sector employees in the Service Worker Centers. (We’ll be going to Wisconsin to watch the coming state Senate recall elections in July — many of which are in districts with heavy concentrations of Service Worker Center counties.)

But in some sense, the concerns come from the same place: economic instability.

People living in the Service Worker Centers have been hit very hard with the decline of small manufacturing and have experienced higher unemployment rates than most of the country during the recession. The unemployment rate in them was still higher than 10 percent in February. People there are frustrated.

However, there are many provisos.

The 2012 race has not even started yet in earnest. It is 18 months away — several lifetimes in political terms. And the American voter seems locked in surly and unsettled mode, prone to big swings.

Even taking all of that into account though, the results from the special election in New York’s 26th congressional district should not be discounted as marking a potential 2012 trend.

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