Dem win buoys party’s prospects; Republicans left to pick up the pieces

The Democrats’ triumph in the GOP stronghold of upstate New York Tuesday has wide-ranging ramifications on the 2012 battles for control of Congress and the White House.
 
The first major election of the cycle has given Democrats confidence that winning back control of the House next year is within reach. While the 2012 general election is a political eternity away, Tuesday's result ensures Democrats will be talking about Medicare for the next year and a half.
 

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Months ago, a divided House Democratic Caucus was struggling to shake off the after-effects of the drubbing it took last November.
 
But Democratic leaders seized on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) controversial budget plan, and focused on it to help Kathy Hochul win Tuesday’s special election. Republican Jane Corwin embraced the Ryan proposal, a move that arguably doomed her campaign.

Six weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) used Ryan's fiscal 2012 proposal to help secure GOP votes for the deal he struck with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the 2011 budget. At the time, he implored his rank-and-file members to back the deal cutting billions so they could make trillions in cuts, as outlined by Ryan's budget.

Some Republicans have privately complained that the Democrats' messaging on Ryan's budget has been far more effective than theirs.

Senate Democrats, who were on their heels during the fiscal 2011 budget showdown, have gone on the offensive in recent weeks. They have scheduled a vote on the Ryan proposal, which calls for a major revamp of Medicare using a voucher/premium support model. At least four Senate Republicans have said they will reject it.
 
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Senate Democrat, who campaigned for Hochul, believes the Medicare issue will help shield his party from major losses in 2012. Democrats are defending 23 seats while Republicans are defending only 10 next year.
 
Conservatives have lauded the Ryan Medicare reform plan, but it has helped Democrats in Washington who have struggled to find a boogeyman since President George W. Bush left office. President Obama and congressional Democrats disagree on a range of issues, though they all have come together to pounce on the Ryan proposal.
 
Republicans have been saying for days that the three-way race, including a former Democrat running as a Tea Party candidate, significantly hurt their chances of retaining former Rep. Chris Lee’s (R-N.Y.) seat.
 
However, the district is clearly conservative-leaning — so much so that Obama did not even endorse Hochul. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defeated Obama in the district in 2008 by six percentage points and GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino beat now-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) there last year.
 
House and Senate Republicans have mostly been on the same page throughout the 112th Congress, focusing on cutting spending and rejecting any call to raise taxes. Yet the Ryan plan exposed some daylight between Boehner and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
 
McConnell this month stressed he will vote for the Ryan plan, while adding it has no chance of becoming law. He did not urge his colleagues to rally behind the proposal like he did the House-passed appropriations bill that called for $61 billion in cuts. Boehner has repeatedly defended the Ryan measure.
 
Meanwhile, White House hopefuls have grappled with the Ryan budget. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) attracted a slew of criticism recently after he bashed the Ryan blueprint on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has distanced himself from it, but has been challenged by Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to say whether he would sign the legislation into law.

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Special elections are often touted as bellwethers of what is coming when voters nationwide go to the polls. In recent years, Republicans point out, they have been anything but. In 2010, House Democrats retained the late Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) seat before losing 63 seats just months later. Four years earlier, Republicans retained California's 50th district before losing control of the lower chamber.

Democrats are basking in their victory, though it is only one House seat — and one that is expected to disappear after redistricting. Still, Tuesday's special election shifts the political winds toward the Democrats and will force Republicans to do some soul-searching.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) told The New York Times, "It's a Republican district with a solid Republican candidate. What went wrong? We definitely have to determine the extent to which the Medicare issue hurt us."

King, along with most of the House GOP conference, backed Ryan's plan last month. Only four Republicans rejected it, including Senate hopeful Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who criticized the Medicare provisions.

Both parties try to push a narrative for each election, and their success is dependent on a myriad of factors. In 2006, the leading issue was the Iraq war; 2008 was the year of Obama's hope and change. Last year, Republicans seized on the Democrats' spending record in the 111th Congress to win the House and build what McConnell calls a "robust minority."

Democrats are hoping that voters will head to the polls in November of 2012 thinking about Medicare. Many Republicans counter that the focus on Medicare will fade, and the election will hinge on the state of the economy.