With the GOP’s loss Tuesday in upstate New York, Republicans once again wilted under the pressure of a high-stakes, nationally-watched House special election, unable to win even in a district where they began with a decided head start.
It’s the latest in a bizarre, longstanding pattern of special election losses, dating back nearly a decade. While it’s not a lock that the GOP will lose every competitive, high-profile special election, the party has lost so many of them now that it’s almost become a standing joke.
Going back to January 2003, Republicans have lost 23 of the last 34 House special elections, including seven of the eight special elections in which party control of the seat changed. The exception: The May 2010 Hawaii special election, a rare Republican victory in Democratic territory...
One GOP operative who has worked on multiple special elections, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak frankly, faulted the party’s national operation for not being proactive enough and not seeing the Medicare issue coming.
“These are completely different animals than anything else out there,” the operative said. “I don’t think these guys [at the NRCC] have figured out the mechanics of these things. You’ve got to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I don’t think they take that attitude — by the time they get in, it’s already screwed up.”
“They were on defense the whole time on Medicare, not on offense on the deficit or Obamacare or anything else,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “You can’t just sit there and be a punching bag on this issue, and that’s what they were.”
Former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, himself a former NRCC chair who held the 26th District seat until 2009, said Medicare “appears to have had an impact both with seniors and independent voters,” adding: “Anyone who says this is all Medicare either hasn’t watched the race closely or is just spinning.”
“This race has a lot of complexities,” he said, “which include Medicare but also include a $3 million candidate running on the Tea Party line.”
One Republican strategist who follows House races put the party’s position in grimmer terms, predicting: “Medicare will define 2012.”
“From day one, our members need to be attacking their challenger for supporting the president’s Medicare-cutting health care bill and his plan to ration benefits for future seniors,” the strategist wrote in an email. “Paul Ryan was wrong; leaders don’t change polls – scaring seniors changes polls, and we had better be prepared to do it as shamelessly as they did in this special if we want to retain the majority.”
While the outcome was complicated by a third-party candidate, members of Congress are sure to study the results for the role that the Republican Medicare proposal may have played in the race.
"We had the issues on our side—did we not have the right issues on our side?" Ms. Hochul said at her victory party, as supporters chanted "Medicare! Medicare!"
"We can balance our budget the right way and not on the backs of our seniors," she said.
Both national parties and several independent fundraising groups spent more than $2 million to influence the election. They included a new Democratic group, House Majority PAC, and American Crossroads, a Republican-leaning group founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove.
Rep. Pete Sessions, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, warned that it was unrealistic to believe the race was predictive of the future.
But Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said Hochul’s victory was a sign of a tough time for Republicans to come.
“What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010,” he said. “It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game.”