By swiping a reliably Republican congressional seat in upstate New York — after making Medicare the central issue in the campaign — Democrats underscored, again, a truism of American politics: Voters are all in favor of spending cuts and hard choices, so long as someone else is swallowing the bitter pill.
Less than a day after Kathy Hochul upset Republican Jane Corwin in a three-way race, Democrats in the Senate sought to extend their political advantage by calling a vote on the House GOP budget plan, which included a proposal to eventually convert Medicare into a voucher system. Five Republicans joined the unified Democrats in rejecting the plan on a 40-57 vote.
It is easy to overstate the importance of any single election, especially an off-year contest like the one Tuesday in the suburbs of Rochester and Buffalo. Politically speaking, November 2012 is light-years away.
But as the glee among Democrats and the worry among Republicans indicated Wednesday, the momentum the GOP enjoyed after last November's crushing midterm performance has come to a dead halt.
More significantly, Hochul's victory put a fine point on tensions within the GOP, between the need to appease budget-slashing "tea partiers" while holding the crucial support of independent and older voters. Both appeared to turn away from Corwin in the last days of the campaign; for emphasis, Hochul supporters chanted, "Medicare! Medicare!" at her victory party Tuesday night.
Several dozen congressional Republicans are running in competitive contests next year, and they face perhaps the greatest peril. All but four House members voted for the budget blueprint that includes the controversial Medicare plan by Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan. The goal, he said, was to stabilize the program and cut nearly $6 trillion in federal spending.
The proposal was destined to fail in a divided Congress. But the Medicare issue soon spilled into the GOP presidential race, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich forced to apologize after knocking Ryan's plan. Other Republican hopefuls have embraced the proposal to varying degrees.
"That may be good for their tea party positioning," said Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman running an independent Democratic expenditure campaign," "but it's not where the American people are."
"Jumping off the Empire State Building is bold too," Burton added, referring to the risk Republicans took — courageously, they say — in the name of fiscal responsibility. "But it's not good politics."
The New York congressional seat was one that Republicans held for years. It came open earlier this year when Rep. Christopher Lee, who is married, resigned after being caught sending a photo of himself shirtless to a potential date via Craigslist.
The two major parties and their political allies poured millions of dollars into the contest, turning the upstate suburbs and countryside in a testing ground for 2012 themes and strategies.
With their victory, Democrats now need 24 seats to reclaim a House majority. Democrats have targeted 61 districts won by President Obama but held by Republicans.
Next up is a July election to fill the seat of former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), which seems likely to stay in Democratic hands. A third special election in Nevada in September is expected to be more competitive; to the relief of many in the GOP, former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who waged a bumbling campaign last year against Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, announced Wednesday she would not run.
But that was a rare bit of good news for Republicans, who devoted most of the day to containing the political damage from Tuesday night's loss. They cited the unusual circumstances, noting that the contest was a three-way race between a Democrat, a Republican and a former Democrat running on the tea party line, and suggested Hochul's 47% support was hardly a ringing mandate.
Ryan tried to shift the focus to Democrats' lack of a Medicare alternative. "Democrats have chosen to shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue to try to scare seniors," he said in an interview. "We have a year and half to get the facts out. I'm very confident of that."
Still, Republicans were wary of spending too much time bogged down in a Medicare fight.
"They want to cherry-pick the Republican plan and make it about the one thing they think they can win — in this case, Medicare," said David Winston, an advisor to the GOP leadership in Congress.
Others agreed that the GOP, if astute, has plenty of time to shift the focus from Medicare before November 2012.
"All we're talking about now is the budget and Ryan's Medicare plan and entitlements and spending," said Stuart Rothenberg, who handicaps elections for his nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "By then we could be talking about where unemployment stands and how Obama has performed on any number of issues."
But in the short term at least, Tuesday's victory presented Democrats with not just a winning issue but a psychological lift that should help in fundraising and, crucially, recruiting candidates.
Democrats "have gotten their chins up off the floor after dragging around since last November," said Mike Fraioli, a party strategist with clients nationwide. "Something like this makes it a lot easier to talk to potential candidates and get them interested in running.