Medicare-Effect Helps Democrats Gain House Seat

A Democrat in western New York won election to Congress this week in a district that had been held by the Republican Party for four decades. The deciding issue may have been the GOP's plan to revamp Medicare. In addition, more names are surfacing as potential Republican presidential candidates.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the political world got a jolt this week. A Democrat in western New York won election to Congress in a district that had been held by Republican Party for four decades. The deciding issue may have been the Republican plan to revamp Medicare.

Also this week, every time we thought the Republican presidential field might be settling down, a new name - or a familiar old one - resurfaced.

Which is why NPR political editor Ken Rudin is with us this morning in the studio. He's here to help us make sense of all of this. Good morning.

KEN RUDIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: OK, so Democrat Kathy Hochul's victory in the New York district -26th district election this week, takes away a traditionally Republican seat. Was - I mean - was this, in fact, Medicare?

RUDIN: Well, Republicans say it was actually - part of - part of the reason they lost the seat, it was the presence of a third party candidate, the Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, who was on the ballot. And he was basically - the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin spent much of the early campaign, attacking the Tea Party candidate cause she was afraid of him siphoning - him siphoning off votes from her. And by doing that, it raised her own negatives. And while this was all happening, the Democrat - Kathy Hochul - was focusing on the Medicare issue from day one - from moment one - on the fact that Corwin her party's plan to revamp Medicare. And that frightened a lot of voters, especially, whenever - whenever you tinker with Medicare, that scares voters.

Yesterday, in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin on TELL ME MORE, Hochul credited the Medicare issue with her victory.

Ms. KATHY HOCHUL (Congresswoman-Elect, Democrat, New York): The Ryan budget gave us an opportunity to talk about Medicare, but also the other priorities in that budget, such as tax breaks that continue for the very wealthiest people in this country. So we weren't afraid to really open up that budget and show people the difference. And when my opponent said, had she been in Congress she would have voted for it; just gave us an opportunity to say, you know what, we wouldn't have done that and here's why.

MONTAGNE: OK, so a little Tea Party challenge in there, but also, the Democrats are hoping this - the whole question of Medicare and Medicare reform - will be a winning issue for them in 2012.

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely, and that's exactly why Senate Majority Leader had an up-and-down vote, Wednesday, on the Ryan budget plan in the Senate. The idea was, if the Republicans voted for it, then Democrats would take out, you know, revenge on the Republicans in 2012. And if the Republicans oppose it, they open themselves up for a Tea Party, or a conservative party challenge in the primary. Remember what happened when Newt Gingrich opposed it, earlier, a few weeks ago. He called it right wing social engineering. He got pilloried by conservatives. So Democrats hope this will really split the GOP.

MONTAGNE: While were on the subject of the presidential race, 2012, a lot of people were saying that once Mitch Daniels of Indiana opted out of the running, the Republican field was pretty much set. Not the case, though.

RUDIN: No, absolutely. It's still in flux. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann said yesterday, that she's going to make a major announcement next month in Waterloo, Iowa. That's the sight of the first presidential caucuses -and where she was born. Many think she's going to declare her candidacy. Social conservatives do very well in Iowa. Mike Huckabee won the caucuses there in 2008. And Michele Bachmann remains a strong Tea Party favorite.

There's also Sarah Palin. You know, every time we're convinced that she's fading from public view, she pops back up. Yesterday, her political - there was an announcement from her Political Action Community, that Sarah Palin will launch a one nation bus tour of the East Coast, starting Sunday, with an eventual stop in - guess where? - New Hampshire. Plus, there's a new, full length feature movie about her career that her supporters have produced, that will be distributed the summer to activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Do I think she's gonna run, is she serious, or is she Donald Trump? I mean, I really don't know. I don't think anybody really knows what she's gonna do. But everything she does gets magnified and we just have to sit and wait and watch -you know, watch and wait. Also, one more thing: Mitt Romney, the erstwhile frontrunner, he announces his candidacy June 2nd in New Hampshire.

MONTGNE: And we just have a few seconds left, but we do have a couple of seconds. What about Texas governor Rick Perry, and talk of him possibly running?

RUDIN: Well, nobody knows, for sure, what he's gonna do. Every time he's asked, he says he hasn't ruled it out. Some of his advisors are convinced that he's going - he's raring to go. He's the nation's longest-serving governor. And remember, being a Republican from Texas is a big plus. The last Republican who was elected president without any connections to Texas or California was Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

MONTAGNE: Let me think about that for a moment. Ken Rudin, NPR political editor, thanks very much.

RUDIN: Thanks, Renee.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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