Democrat Kathy Hochul's upset victory over Republican Jane Corwin in the May 24 special election for New York's 26th Congressional District is a perfect case study of how the Republican Party is crippled by its utter failure to adopt the Sailer Strategy—especially given its addiction to Chamber of Commerce/ libertarian wonkery.
The district is 93% white. Republican Chris Lee was reelected with 74% of the vote in 2010 before resigning in February before the revelation of a shirtless photo he sent to a woman he met on Craigslist . (Needless to say, a Democrat would not have resigned—look at Bill Clinton/ Barney Frank etc.) Republicans were expected to hold the seat easily. But Corwin was forced to play defense on trade and Medicare, while failing to attack on immigration.
Without a doubt, the key issue was Paul Ryan's proposed Medicare reforms. Hochul's yard signs blazed: "Save Medicare: Vote Hochul." Instead yelling "Yes we can" at campaign rallies, her supporters simply chanted "Medicare! Medicare! Medicare!" Many pundits have dubbed her the "Congresswoman from Medicare".
A poll commissioned by Siena University found that voters in the district both supported repealing Obamacare (58%-36%) and also opposed cutting Medicare and Social Security (58%-36%). When asked whether healthcare, taxes, Medicare, or the budget, or jobs was the most important issue, a 21% plurality of voters chose Medicare. Those voters supported Hochul by a 3-1 margin.
Republicans are trying to blame the idiosyncratic "Tea Party" independent candidate Jack Davis for spoiling the election by running and pumping in $3 million of his own money. According to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus:
"Jane Corwin ran a strong campaign in spite of facing a Democrat and a Democrat posed as a tea party candidate, both of whom sought to distract from the central issue in the minds of voters: restoring our economy and creating jobs."
[Translating the NY-26 reaction, by David Cantanese, Politico, May 24, 2011]
Of course, there's something to this. Davis had previously ran as a Democrat, and his campaign manager Curtis Ellis described himself as a progressive Democrat as recently as 2010. Ellis, incidentally, had authored an anti-Tea Party op-ed for the Los Angeles Times asserting
""The tea partyers' pictures and sound bites are so good, no one cares that their math doesn't add up: Cut taxes and the deficit but keep your hands off my Medicare... Everyone understands it's about something deeper."
[Davis Campaign Manager Warms To Tea Party, by Steve Peoples, Roll Call, March 24, 2011]
When all the votes for tallied, Hochul won 47% to Corwin's 43%, while Davis siphoned off 9% of the vote. So it is at least plausible that the bulk of Davis' votes would have gone to Corwin and given her a slim victory.
However, it is not quite that simple. Despite the Tea Party affiliation, Davis ran a nearly single-issue campaign in support of trade protectionism. The aforementioned Siena Poll showed that 26% of Davis supporters were Democrats, 41% were independents and only 33% Republicans. Corwin would have had to won at least 75% of Davis' voters in order to win. Given this breakdown, that's a fairly tough order. While the race would have been much closer, Hochul probably would have still won without Davis.
And even had Davis spoiled the election for Corwin, he wouldn't have had an issue to run on if she and the Republicans were not so dogmatically in favor of free trade.
In an example of just how clueless the Establishment conservative movement is about trade, they responded by claiming that Davis' position made him a liberal. Noting that Paul Krugman supports a protective tariff, RedState.com asked, "If a 'Tea Party' candidate has the same economic prescription the radical, far-left economist Paul Krugman, can the candidate really part of the Tea Party?" [Jack Davis, Tea Party candidate and champion of the economics of Paul Krugman, by Sam Foster, April 6, 2011]
But protectionism is also the prescription of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Robert Taft, and Pat Buchanan—all Republicans, remember? More importantly, it is also the choice of the vast majority of voters—including 61% of Tea Party members who oppose free trade.
Even if Corwin wanted to keep her trade stance, she could have counter-attacked Davis over his refusal to address immigration. What is the point of keeping factories and farms from going overseas if we are simply importing the workers for them instead?
However, Corwin completely ignored the issue of immigration—and, when pressed, she said she supported guest workers.
As a State Assemblywomen, Jane Corwin had cosponsored a bill requiring all illegal aliens convicted of a crime to be reported to ICE with the recommendation of immediate deportation. But she never brought this up during her campaign.
Corwin's website did not mention immigration once. When cornered on the issue, she said:
"Immigration has an incredible impact on agriculture in our region. We should start enforcing our borders but there should be some way for farmers to have workers come in. I would be for a working guest pass but not for amnesty."
[Livingston County Republicans Welcome Congressional Candidate Jane Corwin, by Josh Williams, Genesee Sun, April 15, 2011]
It is not clear if Corwin's call for a "working guest pass" meant a seasonal worker program (for which there are already unlimited agriculture visas) or else was a euphemism for amnesty.
A staffer at a patriotic immigration reform Political Action Committees tells me they tried to reach out to the Corwin campaign, but were rebuffed when they asked her to clarify her position.
If anything, Democrat Karen Hochul took a stronger stance against immigration than Corwin. As Erie County Clerk, Hochul vocally broke with the Democratic Party leadership to oppose Eliot Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens. At the time, ABC News reported,
"[Hochul] says she'll follow the state rule by allowing illegals to apply for a license without the use of a social security card. But if they do, she'll call the sheriff's office, and the illegal immigrants might end up getting kicked out of the country."
Hochul made no mention of immigration in her platform—but she did run ads touting her dissent on driver's licenses. In fact, her stand may have made her career, and certainly won her some Republican support. The New York Times reported,
"Ms. Hochul gained prominence in 2008 when she challenged former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to issue licenses to illegal immigrants.
"'I remember when she was in the auto bureau in Buffalo, she did a lot with the license plates[a separate issue],' said Jim Van Wagner, a Republican and former auto worker from Albion, adding, 'She's a good one.'"
[Democrat Wins G.O.P. Seat; Rebuke Seen to Medicare Plan, by Raymond Hernandez, May 24, 2011]
So Hochul peeled off Republican support by dog whistling her legitimate, if incomplete, record on immigration. But Corwin could have neutralized this by forcing Hochul to take a stand on the immigration issue beyond driver's licenses.
Just saying: "I oppose amnesty and want to secure the borders" wouldn't have cut it. She would have had to come out in favor of Arizona's SB 1070, ending birthright citizenship, and/or cutting legal immigration—and see if Hochul would have been willing to take an equally hardline stance.
The immigration factor in the race was complicated by the fact that Corwin was briefly accused, by Jack Davis, of having hired an illegal alien nanny. The evidence was limited to mere speculation by a talk radio host on his Facebook page, which Davis tried to spread. Corwin claimed that she never even employed a live-in nanny. Given that this accusation seemed to come out of thin air without the slightest bit of evidence, I am willing to grant her the benefit of the doubt.
However, if the rumor was true, perhaps she wanted to avoid immigration for fear of the issue coming up.
Of course, if she had hired illegals, then I can only say good riddance to bad rubbish!
Hochul (D-NY) deserves credit for her stand against driver's licenses for illegals. But her silence on any other aspect of the immigration issue means we can only speculate how she will vote in Congress. We will see if she ends up like Heath Shuler (D-NC) who has become a leader in patriotic immigration reform, or her fellow upstate New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who initially sounded tough on immigration, but ended up going native once she won statewide office cosponsoring the DREAM Act.
Republicans deserved to be punished for their cowardice on immigration. But if Hochul ends up voting like Gillibrand, Americans will be the real losers.
"Washington Watcher" [email him] is an anonymous source Inside The Beltway.