New York’s 26th District Elections: Democratic Victory Celebration Premature

Democrats are cheering the results of this week's election in upstate New York. But as Michael Tomasky explains, they still face an uphill battle for control of Congress in 2012.

I'd be delighted to think the results of Tuesday's special election in New York's 26th District change everything and put Republicans completely on the defensive on Medicare. But how many races following that rough template will there actually be next year? Maybe not as many as Democrats hope. If they're going to win the 26 seats they need to regain control of the House of Representatives, and if they're hoping to hold on to the Senate, they're going to have to hit for an awfully high average in a relatively small number of toss-up seats where the GOP candidate's support for Paul Ryan's deficit-reduction plan could finish him or her off.

Before we get to that, three notes about Tuesday's race. First, Democrat Kathy Hochul only modestly outperformed past Democrats. She got 47 percent of the vote in victory. In 2004, 2006, and 2008, when the Democrats put up solid contenders for the seat, they averaged 44 percent. Not so different, really. Second, despite some pre-election hype, New York's 26th isn't one of the most Republican districts in the country. Cook Political Report ranks it the 165th most Republican district in the country. Finally, Jack Davis, the third-party candidate on the right, spent an absurd $3 million to get 9 percent of the vote. So there were some anomalies about this contest that Democrats should be aware of.

Now let's consider next year's elections, starting with the House. The Cook report rates just 16 races as toss-ups right now. The Cook site has 11 races as "lean Democratic," which is the weakest partisan ranking (behind "likely" and "solid"), and 17 races as "lean Republican." That's 44 contested seats. Meanwhile, as of today, 176 seats are rated "solid Republican" and 41 are "likely Republican." Since 176 plus 41 equals 217, and a majority in the House is 218, Democrats would have to win virtually every contested seat.

There are definitely some vulnerable Republicans, 18 of whom represent districts that have a Democratic partisan voting index rating. There are, for example, two GOP House members from Illinois, Robert Dold and Bobby Schilling, who are freshmen, represent Democratic-leaning districts, and voted for the Ryan plan. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania meets the same three criteria. Ditto Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. But if you scan the site's state-by-state maps, you see that there really aren't that many GOP House members who voted for Ryan and who represent purple-blue territory and are considered by Cook's experts to be highly vulnerable. Maybe ten or so. The sad fact remains that having voted for Ryan's budget on April 15, 2011, won't hurt very many House Republicans in November 2012.

The fact remains that there is far more pressure inside the Republican universe (including the Fox News-Limbaugh nexus) to be for Paul Ryan's Medicare-privatization plan than against it.

In Senate races, the situation is more interesting. The main reason is that here we have a number of sitting House members running for Senate, or contemplating a run, who voted for the Ryan plan. Jeff Flake of Arizona is an announced Senate candidate in a state that's really conservative these days but has a large elderly population. It's not clear yet who the Democratic candidate might be there, but a decent candidate could conceivably win on Medicare and flip the seat (now held by a Republican, Jon Kyl, who's retiring). In West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito, who might run against Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin, also voted for the Ryan plan, in another state with a large elderly population. In Nevada, Dean Heller voted for the Ryan plan as a congressman and then got appointed to fill the Senate seat of John Ensign, who resigned in disgrace. Heller voted for the Ryan plan again in the Senate Wednesday. He'll face a serious Democratic opponent next year, Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley, who voted against Ryan.

Various Republican candidates' support for the Ryan plan could make a difference in Nebraska and Missouri as well, depending on which Republican wins the primary. And in a few other blue-leaning states, GOP candidates are staying away from Ryan for now—George Allen in Virginia, as I noted the other day, and Tommy Thompson in Paul Ryan's own Wisconsin.

Yet the fact remains that there is far more pressure inside the Republican universe (which includes the Fox News-Limbaugh nexus) to be for Ryan than against him, for two simple reasons. First, as I show above, most elected Republicans can endorse the Ryan plan and easily win reelection. Second, Republicans in fact do want to end Medicare as we know it, which Ryan's plan does. So those candidates who need to back away will do so, but I don't think for a second that the GOP as a whole is going to give up on this goal.

There is, however, one more factor here I haven't mentioned. There will of course be a presidential election in 2012. Medicare should be an easy winner for Obama, so much so that the eventual GOP nominee might have to walk away from the plan. If that happens, then you'll certainly see the circular firing squad line up. We've already seen a hint of it. "The big story of NY-26 is that Republican enthusiasm has cratered since 2010," says Cook's David Wasserman, the site's House expert. If the Republican presidential nominee abandons Ryan, there will be plenty more cratering to come.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.