In NY-26, House Republicans look to break special-election slump

House Republicans, who are looking to break out of their three-year slump in special elections, say this time will be different. 

Democrats lost the House in November, but they have dominated competitive special elections in recent years, winning six out of the last seven since 2008.


The stakes in the May 24 special election in New York are enormous for the new House GOP majority, as the contest is being viewed as a referendum on controversial Medicare provisions included in Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOvernight Defense: Dunford expected to finish Joint Chiefs term | House lawmakers pushing for Yemen vote | Pentagon says a few hundred troops leaving border Ocasio-Cortez: Paul Ryan got called a 'genius' when he was elected at 28, I get accused of being 'a fraud' Meadows looks to make his move MORE’s (R-Wis.) budget blueprint.

A loss would be a blow to the GOP, especially because of the timing of the election and the district’s conservative-leaning bent.

Clearly, Republicans are worried. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and its conservative allies committed more than $900,000 this week for TV advertising to aid GOP nominee Jane Corwin. Polls have shown a surprisingly close three-way contest there. 

During the last session of Congress, Republican candidates lost special-election races in conservative districts that political analysts say they should have won, in both New York and Pennsylvania. In both instances, the races drew national attention and helped Democrats craft a narrative that voters were rejecting the Republicans’ agenda. Republicans point out they won a special election in Hawaii last year, adding that voters embraced the GOP in November by giving them the majority in the House.

Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), who heads the NRCC, brushed off the suggestion that the committee is cursed when it comes to winning these House races. 

“We picked up six seats in the election in New York — a net six new seats — and I think that when the voters get an opportunity, I think the voters make a wise choice. I think they will this time, also,” he said. 

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Thursday that Democrats are thrilled at the prospect of stealing a seat in a traditionally red district. But he said the DCCC has no plans to send prominent surrogates to join the fight.

“We’re doing this day by day,” Israel said.

In recent special elections, Democrats have called on former President Clinton to rally supporters in the closing days. Clinton appeared at a rally in Johnstown on the Sunday before the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th district last year with now-Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa), who subsequently defeated Republican Tim Burns. 

During the special election in New York’s 23rd district in 2009, Clinton sent out a fundraising appeal on Democratic Rep. Bill Owen’s behalf, but did not make a personal appearance for him. Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenGillum reached out to O’Rourke amid 2020 speculation: report O'Rourke spoke with Al Sharpton amid 2020 speculation Warren has contacted 100 people in early 2020 primary states: report MORE did stump for Owens at the time.

A spokesman for Clinton didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It’s doubtful President Obama will travel to the district of former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), who resigned in February after a scandal. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCohen’s pleas concocted by prosecutors to snare Trump Overnight Defense: Senate Armed Services chair eyes Russia, China threats | Pushes Trump not to cut defense budget | Mattis says US looking for more Khashoggi evidence Dem strategist says Trump should not have attended George H.W. Bush's funeral MORE (R-Ariz.) captured the district in the 2008 presidential race by 6 percentage points.

Corwin has had no shortage of help from prominent Republicans. House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows looks to make his move Fractious GOP vows to unify in House minority Three Republicans battle to succeed Meadows at House Freedom Caucus MORE (Ohio), Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorGM lobbyists go into full crisis mode over layoffs Bottom Line McCarthy defeats Jordan for minority leader in 159-to-43 vote MORE (Va.), Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus and Sessions have all made campaign appearances with her.

In an interview with The Hill Wednesday, Priebus said RNC will be involved in the race and predicted victory there. 

None of the potential GOP contenders for the 2012 nomination have traveled to New York for Corwin, but Sessions indicated their help isn’t needed.

“I have not asked them” to go, he said. 

“I think Jane Corwin’s very able to … stand on her own two feet,” Sessions added. “We believe Jane Corwin will make an outstanding member of Congress.” 

Former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who oversaw several special-election campaigns during his time as chairman of the NRCC, said the presence of independent candidate Jack Davis is complicating the GOP’s efforts to retain the seat. “If this was a one-on-one race, I think we’d be fine,” he said.

Jack Davis, a multimillionaire who is running on the Tea Party line, garnered 24 percent support in a recent Public Policy Polling survey, while Corwin took 31 percent and Democrat Kathy Hochul took 35 percent. He ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat in 2004, 2006 and 2008. 

Tom Davis said Israel would likely pull out all the stops to win the seat. “To him, this is his backyard. They’re going to put the resources into this,” he said, before adding: “It’s New York. Anything can happen.”

Of the six Democratic victors in recent competitive special elections, only Reps. Owens and Critz survived the 2010 elections. Ex-Rep. Charles Djou (R-Hawaii), who was sworn into office last year, was one of only two House Republican incumbents who lost in November. 

Mike Lillis contributed reporting.