Some Republicans are already saying that Democrat Kathy Hochul's apparent special election victory over Republican Jane Corwin in a conservative upstate New York district doesn't mean much: It's just one district, after all, and there was a wildcard in the race in the form of independent candidate Jack Davis, who siphoned votes that would otherwise have gone to Corwin.
But even the most optimistic Republicans privately recognize that Hochul's upset victory is an ominous sign for their party. Pre-election polling showed that the number one issue in the district - where 40 percent of the electorate is over 55 years old - was Medicare. All but four House Republicans voted for the Paul Ryan budget that would turn Medicare into a voucher system in ten years; Hochul seized on that vote to cast Republicans generally and Corwin specifically as seeking to gut the program, and it worked. Expect nearly every Democrat seeking to unseat a Republican next year to follow her playbook.
In a celebratory statement just after the results were announced, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the result was a victory "for Americans who believe that our elected leaders should fight to protect Medicare and ensure that our government works for our seniors, working families and young people."
Wasserman Schultz noted that the representative Hochul will replace - Republican Chris Lee, who resigned after sending a shirtless photograph of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist - won 74 percent of the vote in his last election. Carl Paladino, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost badly to Democrat Andrew Cuomo last year, took 61 percent of the vote in the district in November.
"Kathy's Republican opponent, and those who spent a small fortune on her behalf in a solidly Republican district, found out the hard way that their extreme plans to abolish Medicare and slash Medicaid and investments in health care, education, innovation and job creation are wrongheaded and unpopular even in a district that should have been a cakewalk for the Republican candidate," she said.
Both the national parties and outside interest groups spent lavishly to influence the outcome of the race because they knew that it would send a message about GOP prospects in the 2012 election. (The parties also called in heavy hitters like John Boehner and Bill Clinton to make the case for their preferred candidate.) Hochul's victory could make it harder for Republicans to recruit the best candidates - they won't want to run if they think they will lose - and energize Democratic donors for whom taking back the House suddenly doesn't seem like such a remote possibility.
The Republican-aligned outside group American Crossroads sent out a statement after the vote acknowledging the message sent by the special election, calling it "a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010," when Republicans took the House from the Democrats.
"It's going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year," American Crossroads president and CEO Steven Law said.
Officially, however, the Republican Party is playing down the results, with National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions pointing to Davis' presence in the race and saying that "to predict the future based on the results of this unusual race is naive and risky."
"History shows one important fact: the results of competitive special elections from Hawaii to New York are poor indicators of broader trends or future general election outcomes," he said. "If special elections were an early warning system, they sure failed to alert the Democrats of the political tsunami that flooded their ranks in 2010."
Before the vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also said the election wasn't a referendum on the Medicare vote, arguing that Davis' presence skewed the vote. "I know this town loves to take signals from individual races," he told reporters. "I think the best signal you can take is the 63 seats that we picked up in November."
Perhaps. But the voters are suggesting otherwise. "I have almost always voted the party line," Republican Hochul voter Gloria Bolender told the New York Times. "This is the second time in my life I've voted against my party." Added Republican Pat Gillick, who also voted for the Democrat: "The privatization of Medicare scares me."
Cantor himself was quick to cast Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown's upset special election victory last January as a referendum on the Democratic Party. Republicans knew their vote on Medicare was risky, but it was one they chose to cast anyway (in a purely symbolic vote) in an apparent effort to show their Tea Party supporters that they were serious about addressing the deficit and debt. It's a decision that Tuesday's results suggest they may live to regret.