Special election in N.Y. could be precursor to 2012 fight for control of House

Republican Jane Corwin, left, and Democrat Kathy Hochul, running in a special election in New York's 26th Congressional District to fill a vacancy by the departing GOP Rep. Christopher Lee.
Republican Jane Corwin, left, and Democrat Kathy Hochul, right.

Updated 3:45 p.m. ET

The special election held today for a congressional seat representing upstate New York is drawing national attention for what some see as a precursor to next year's fight for control of the House of Representatives.

Republicans are looking to hold this seat in a GOP-leaning district formerly held by Republican Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned in February. Democrats are hoping to make Republicans' proposals for Medicare cost them at the polls.

Polls close at 9:00 pm. If you're following the action as returns come in, first keep an eye on Erie county. The portion of it that lies in the 26th typically composes the largest share of votes in the district. (This is mainly suburbs of Buffalo.) And the partisan registration there is about even, marking potentially competitive ground within a district that has voted Republican overall. If Democrat Kathy Hochul is going to win this race she'll likely need to capitalize with strong turnout and performance there, though that'll be a challenge: in 2008 and 2010 Republican Chris Lee took the Erie portion of the 26th. In '08 his Democratic opponent was competitive and fell a few thousand votes shy of his totals.

N.Y. congressional race defies expectations

Also watch the parts of Monroe and Niagara counties within the 26th- taken together, those two can cast as many ballots or more than Erie.

Monroe has a GOP registration edge, and Lee won both. If Jane Corwin is going to hold this seat for the GOP, she probably needs to show solid numerical gains here over Hochul.

In this three-way race Jack Davis, who claims affiliation with the conservative Tea Party movement, is especially worth watching in the larger counties because with a relatively strong showing (say, if he reaches the double-digits that he has in recent polls) that total vote will add up - if they're taken from Corwin that would be a tough tally for her to make up district-wide.

Davis' voters were less certain about their candidate choice than Corwin's or Hochul's in the most recent Siena College poll. That shouldn't surprise for a third party candidate - they can sometimes underperform from pre-election polls if prospective voters switch to someone they think has a better shot, or just stay home. If Davis doesn't do well, we'd have to think Corwin's chances increase. Indeed, he has drawn fire in recent weeks from Republicans and conservative groups who've questioned his Tea Party credentials.

Finally, in a very close race, Republicans' trump card in CD26 could well be the smaller counties like Genesee, where GOP candidates usually do well -- although they are more sparsely populated, those votes could add up to a difference.

Whatever the result, remember that In the last cycle, Democrats won a 2009 special election - also in upstate New York (CD-23) - in which they captured a long-held Republican seat, helped by a three-way race that split some Republican voters. They also went on to win the Pennsylvania-12 special in the spring of 2010 in part by stressing local issues. After that race, some felt it was a sign Democrats had successfully road-tested a formula that might help them hold the House in November.

It is worth noting that special elections are often meaningful for their district, but they do not always have broader significance.

  • Anthony Salvanto On Twitter»

    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director