There’s a special election in the New York 26th today to replace the disgraced Chris Lee (he was the shirtless Craigslist guy, for those of you struggling to remember which slimebag Republican hypocrite is which). Such events often garner considerably more attention than they’re worth, and this one is certainly no exception: it’s not like there’s going to be a shift in the balance of power, after all.
And both sides have already audience-tested their talking points in the event of a defeat. Should Jane Corwin hold the seat for the Republicans, expect to hear the Dems crow about how close they made an election in what should have been a safe seat for the GOP, despite a massive amount of cash from both the RNC and a host of PACs, ranging from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads to various Tea Party affiliates. (Corwin has also “loaned” her campaign more than $2 million of her own money.)
Speaking of the Tea Party, there’s actually a Tea Party candidate in the race, Jack Davis. And his presence will be blamed for a Republican defeat, should there be one. This is especially galling to the GOP because Davis is simply a rich and largely self-funded political opportunist who doesn’t really believe in Tea Party ideals. He’s run for Congress three times before, always as a Democrat, and he’s been denounced by the Tea Party hierarchy. (Oh, wait. The Tea Party is an entirely grass-roots organization; they don’t have a hierarchy. Well, you know what I mean.) What Davis is doing is precisely what many other “third-party” candidates have done in the past: find a spot on the ballot because some small party doesn’t really have a candidate of their own (does anyone really believe Ralph Nader was a Green, or Bob Barr a Libertarian?). And it’s certainly true that such candidacies can affect elections: many on the right blame Ross Perot for Bill Clinton’s victory over George H. W. Bush; many on the left blame Nader for George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore.
Yes, it’s certainly Davis’s presence on the ballot that is making things tough for Corwin. It couldn’t be that Democrat Kathy Hochul has been hammering at Corwin’s support for Paul Ryan’s budgetary fantasies to the extent that the AP article describes the race as “a referendum on the Republican plan to transform Medicare.” No, it couldn’t be that. It’s all about Davis. After all, Eric Cantor said so, so you know it’s true.
Well, actually, it’s both, and anyone honest about what this election means will tell you so… which means that we won’t hear it from any party leaders on either side. The Ryan plan is hugely unpopular with just about everyone who isn’t a GOP Representative. Even Tea Party supporters oppose cutting Medicare and Medicaid by a 70-28 margin. If Hochul can tap into that opposition to radical libertarianism, and it appears she has been fairly effective at doing so, she could stand a chance even in a very conservative district that voted for Chris Lee by 51 points(!). But no, she would have no chance of more than a moral victory without Davis.
Another point needs making. My guess is that Davis will attract three kinds of voters. The first, the smallest group, will know him and/or his policies (he apparently has better name recognition than either of his major-party opponents), and will vote for him on that basis. A somewhat larger cohort, I suspect, are completely fed up with both parties and are looking to lodge a protest vote, to express displeasure actively rather than passively sitting out the election. I’ve used this tactic myself on numerous occasions over the years. Finally, there’s the part of the Davis voting bloc that the GOP is rightfully worried about: those who will vote for him not because he isn’t running as a major-party candidate, but specifically because he is running as a Tea Partier. That may draw votes from Corwin, and might just turn the election.
Of course, we have no real way of knowing why people vote the way they do. What they tell pollsters is probably some indication, but it isn’t entirely accurate for one simple reason: people lie. What is really important here is this: Davis is indeed the largely liberal “fraud” the national Tea Party claims him to be. But let’s look at the ramifications of that statement. In an informed electorate, that would mean that his third-party candidacy would draw votes from Hochul, not Corwin. That the GOP is screaming foul can be taken as proof that the Republicans (rightly) regard a significant percentage of Tea Partiers as completely uninformed and/or stupid. Only someone who didn’t know the candidates would vote for Davis over Corwin thinking he was the more conservative choice. Of course, only someone hubristically ignorant or dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers would vote for a Tea Party candidate at all, ever.
I should note that this kind of implicit recognition of the political incompetence of many of one’s supporters is not a specifically Republican phenomenon. Remember the 2000 Presidential election, when many on the left pointed to exit polling to suggest that more people in Florida had intended to vote for Gore rather than Bush? Those “butterfly” ballots were a real problem (after the fact, of course) to Gore supporters. But when you really break down their argument, it looked like this: “voters too stupid to figure out a ballot would have voted disproportionately for our guy.” Probably true, in this case, but hardly the stuff of bumper sticker aphorisms.
So what will tonight’s results mean? Not much. There’s no way the GOP can make even a reasonably comfortable victory look good. For the Republicans to come up as real winners, they’d have to limit Hochul to less than the 26.2% achieved by Philip Fedele against Lee last November. In other words, even if we grant that every vote for Davis would have gone to Corwin in a two-way race, those two candidates combined would have to total over 73% of the vote or the GOP is losing ground. I can’t imagine that Hochul won’t close that gap appreciably, even if she doesn’t win. Indeed, a “blowout” win for Corwin right now would be maybe 6 points. For those of you who aren’t math majors, 6 is considerably less than 51. And that dramatic decline happened a). in less than seven months, and b). when the Democratic candidate focused on what the national GOP is saying.
Conversely, I don’t see Hochul taking 50% of the vote, either. Even were she to be elected, and even if national trends tip towards the Democrats (or, more accurately, away from the Republicans), as I expect them to do, she’ll face a tough re-election fight in that district. But the Democrats have already won, even if they don’t end up electing Ms. Hochul. This should have been a safe hold for the GOP, and it wasn’t. That may have to be enough for the Dems, but it really is rather a lot.
What does all this mean nationally? Well, if Corwin wins, not much. The national GOP already knows they’ve got to figure out a way to disavow Ryan’s budget plan without appearing to do so: a perilous balancing act, but one which they’re likely to get away with, thanks to the usual sloth of the corporate media. And a win is a win. The fact that it was considerably narrower than it should have been will be gone from the news cycle in days if not hours. If Hochul pulls off what would still rank as a significant upset, however, there’s a chance of energizing the base, attracting candidates who want to run as Democrats rather than as GOP-Lite, and suggesting the kinds of strategies and ground games that might lead to a very different 2012 election than happened in 2010.
One other consideration, of course, is that Paul Ryan’s name is being tossed around by the likes of Eric Cantor and Dick Armey as a presidential candidate. Such a run would be significantly damaged by a Hochul victory, as it wouldn’t be just the Democrats who would natter on about how unpopular Ryan’s economic plan is, but rather the rest of the Republican field would have their knives sharpened and at the ready, too. The fact that many of these same folks supported those policies… erm… yesterday is, of course, irrelevant in the world of politics.
Yes, a Hochul victory would hurt Ryan a fair bit. Decisively? Possibly, but remember that four years ago all the pundits were gearing up for the seemingly inevitable presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Oops.