NY-26 special election 2011
A special election was held in New York’s 26th congressional district on May 24, 2011. Representative Chris Lee (R-NY) resigned his seat on February 9, 2011 because he couldn’t keep his shirt on. Really, Lee was forced out when he had posted a shirtless picture of him on Craigslist. For some reason, he was dumb enough to use his real name.
Covering western New York, NY-26 includes all of Genesee, Livingston and Wyoming Counties and parts of Erie, Monroe, Niagara, and Orleans Counties. NY-26 is more or less tailor-made to elect a Republican, including some very conservative rural counties in western NY in addition to more marginal but still overall Republican-leaning suburban areas in Erie, Monroe and Niagara counties. The more Democratic leaning parts of Erie (Buffalo) and Monroe (Rochester) are included in the gerrymandered 28th district, tailor-made to elect Democrat Louise Slaughter Western New York has long been a Republican bastion for over a hundred years, with strong Republican support dating back to the era where the counties of the region were known as the “burned-over district”, a region known for its evangelical religious fervour during the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s. Today, western New York outside the core cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Niagara Falls remains one of the state’s most conservative areas.
Most of NY-26’s population lives in suburban Niagara and Erie counties. The district’s portion of Erie County includes part of Amherst and the north campus of the state university in Buffalo. NY-26 also includes Lockport, North Tonawanda, Batavia, Brockport, Greece and the college town of Geneseo. Democrats are strong in Geneseo, Brockport and parts of Erie and Niagara counties but Republicans dominate the rural counties and other suburban areas. This was one of New York’s only four (out of 29) CDs to vote for John McCain in 2008, giving him 52.1% of the vote against 46.4% for Barack Obama. Wyoming County, which gave 62% to McCain, is one of the most Republican counties in New York.
The seat had been held by Lee since 2008. Lee, a conservative Republican, won by 14.5% over his little-known Democratic opponent Alice Kryzan in 2008 and increased his majority to 47% against a token Democratic opponent last year. Prior to Lee, the seat had been held by Republican Thomas M. Reynolds, a conservative Republican. Scandal-tarred Reynolds had been a Democratic target in 2006, but he won by 4%. Prior to that, the region has elected Republicans to Congress since the 1960s at least.
Republicans nominated Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (142nd district), while Democrats nominated Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul. There was a third-party figure in the contest, the crazy old man Jack Davis who got enough signatures to run on his own “Tea Party” line. Davis has run for the Democrats three times, and lost to Reynolds by 4% in 2006. Davis’ signature issue is protectionism, but seems more or less conservative on other issues though he isn’t your traditional Tea Party figure for that matter. Overall, he seems to be a crazy old man albeit one with stashes of money. The Green Party, which won automatic ballot access in 2008, nominated Ian Murphy, who had pranked called Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) pretending to be David Koch.
This wasn’t a seat which should have been close but Jack Davis’ entrance into the contest did make it close but Jane Corwin seriously hurt herself by tying herself to the Paul Ryan (R-WI) budget, that controversial Medicare-slashing budget. Hochul lashed onto it and made Medicare a top issue, and Corwin did herself no favours by tying herself to Ryan as other Republicans such as Scott Brown (R-MA) distanced themselves from it. Davis polled strongly until last week, taking up 23-26% of the vote in polls while Corwin sled behind Hochul beginning in early May. Davis’ support slid into the 12-13% in the final week, which may or may not be the effect of a viral video showing him hitting some Corwin staffer (whose melodramatic “I’m having a seizure!”-type response was more hilarious than Davis being insane). But the last PPP poll had Hochul up 42-36 on Corwin with Davis polling 13%.
Kathy Hochul (D/WF) 47.12%
Jane Corwin (R/C/I) 42.56%
Jack Davis (Tea Party) 9.22%
Ian Murphy (Green) 1.1%
Hochul’s win is a major Democratic victory and a major Republican defeat which could further the divisions over the Ryan budget. Hochul was supposed to win because Jack Davis would take a significant share of the vote, and Davis polling under 10% (as he did) was supposed to be the kiss of death for Hochul. But it wasn’t. Hochul won strong enough support on her own, outperforming Obama’s 2008 result. Republicans can play the Nader-spoiler game, but Davis’ support would have had to split very, very heavily in Corwin’s favour – something like 80 to 20 – in order for her to win. Which isn’t an entirely realistic thing to expect, especially given the rumours that Davis drew significant Democratic support.
Democrats say that Medicare was the main reason for their significant win last night, a reasonable proposition. Paul Ryan’s Medicare-slashing budget is pretty unpopular and focusing on Medicare might be a winning strategy for Democrats in the 2012 elections – where they need to overturn a 48-seat GOP majority to regain the House.
On a final note, Hochul’s win opens up interesting possibilities for redistricting in which New York will lose two seats. New York’s legislature will likely go for an incumbent-protection map given that Democrats lack full control of the process with the State Senate in GOP hands. It seems as if legislators will strengthen Hochul by drawing her district to include Democratic Buffalo and Niagara Falls while perhaps shifting Slaughter’s district to Rochester. Tom Reed, the NY-29 Republican, might be given a district which combines his old district with the solidly Republican parts of NY-26.