GOP Worries About N.Y. Special Election

Republicans are worried that they could lose one of their House seats in a special election Tuesday in western New York. The district has long been safe Republican territory. But the race has become a referendum on the GOP's controversial Medicare reform plan.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Tomorrow, voters in western New York will elect a new member of Congress. Republican Chris Lee resigned in February. That was after it was revealed that Lee, who was married, had emailed a racy photograph of himself to a woman he met on Craig's List.

Well, despite the scandal, Republicans were expected to hold the seat without much trouble. But the campaign has been up-ended by a Tea Party challenger and by a furious debate over the GOP's Medicare reform plan.

Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio has the story.

BRIAN MANN: Whether it's fair or not, sometimes one moment can define a political campaign. In New York's 26th Congressional District race that moment was captured earlier this month on a YouTube video.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: Jack, why did you back out of the debate?

Mr. JACK DAVIS (Congressional Candidate, New York): Do you want to punch it out?

Unidentified Man #1: Why? Why did you? Ow. Ow. Sir...

MANN: The video first posted by Republicans shows third-party candidate Jack Davis. He's a businessman and former Democrat who's running on a Tea Party ballot line after being endorsed by one faction of the Tea Party Movement.

Davis is apparently slapping at a cameraman who turns out to be the chief of staff at Jane Corwin. She's a Republican in the race. Political observers say this kind of muddle and melodrama have left Corwin vulnerable in a part of Western New York the Republicans usually dominate.

Mr. DAN FISCHER (News Director, Batavia News Radio): It was the Republicans candidate's race to lose. And she may be losing it.

MANN: Dan Fischer is news director at WBTA, an AM radio station in Batavia, New York.

The small city sits in that conservative heartland of the district, halfway between Buffalo and Rochester. Fischer thinks Republicans got sidetracked, going too negative and trying to convince voters that Davis isn't a legitimate conservative, with ads like this one.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man #2: Davis even said he had a hand in creating Nancy Pelosi's Democrat majority in Congress.

MANN: Davis' support has dwindled over the last week, but Corwin's campaign is clearly worried by polls showing him still biting off a big chunk of Republican voters. Several Tea Party groups rushed to endorse Corwin, accusing Davis of playing the spoiler.

But Republican State Assemblyman Steve Hawley points out that Davis has been hard to marginalize. He's a millionaire, wealthy enough to finance his own campaign. Davis is also better known in parts of the District than the Republican or the Democrat.

Mr. STEVE HAWLEY (State Assemblyman, New York; Republican): He has better name recognition. And, as you know, that's very, very important.

MANN: While Republicans here were wrestling with a third-party challenger, their leaders back in Washington chose this spring to unveil a controversial Medicare reform plan.

The Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul pounced, accusing Jane Corwin of supporting an effort to dismantle the popular program. Here she is speaking during a debate on WGRZ-TV.

Ms. KATHY HOCHUL (Democratic Congressional Candidate, New York): And the truth is, it is a voucher program and Jane knows that. The Wall Street Journal even said that it ends Medicare as we know it.

MANN: Corwin has scrambled to explain her views on Medicare, insisting that she would never vote for a plan that would impact those seniors who now rely on the program.

Ms. JANE CORWIN (Republican Congressional Candidate, New York): Actually, Kathy is the one with the scare tactics, because the reality is this does not eliminate Medicare.

MANN: But even many Republicans say the Corwin campaign handled the issue clumsily. And Dan Fischer says questions about Medicare put a key voting bloc back in play.

Mr. FISCHER: The demographics of this town definitely tend to be older, and nowhere is it more pronounced, Medicare, as the third rail of politics than right here.

MANN: If Republican leaders here are worried, so our rank-and-file conservative voters like Janet Burheit, an attorney from Buffalo. A Corwin supporter, she is dismayed that Democrats might pull off an upset.

Ms. JANET BURHEIT (Attorney): Yeah, I think Kathy Hochul might win.

MANN: Do you think the Republicans have - have kind of - I mean they...

Ms. BURHEIT: Screwed it up.

MANN: Screwed it up?

Ms. BURHEIT: I think they might have.

MANN: With polls showing Democrat Kathy Hochul with a slim lead, both parties and outside activists groups poured money into last-minute ads and get out the vote efforts.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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