BUFFALO - Democrats picked off a heavily Republican New York congressional seat Tuesday in a special election that became a referendum on Medicare.

Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul defeated Republican State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin to win the seat in the 26th Congressional District.

The rural-suburban district between Buffalo and Rochester is one of the state's most conservative. But Corwin saw her early lead dissolve after coming out in favor of a Republican budget plan that would cut billions from Medicare, the government health plan for seniors.

With 89 percent of precincts reporting, Hochul had 48 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for Corwin.

A chant of "Kathy, Kathy" went up at the Hochul headquarters at a suburban Amherst union hall.

A third candidate, tea party contender Jack Davis, also siphoned votes away from Corwin. He had 9 percent of the vote.

The seat became vacant in February when Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned after shirtless photos he sent to a woman surfaced online.

The 26th District was one of only four districts in the state - out of 29 - that favored Republican John McCain over President Obama in 2008.

But Corwin, a multimillionaire state assemblywoman, watched her lead evaporate after expressing support for a plan crafted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) to strip billions from Medicare and recast it as a voucher program. Corwin said she supported the Ryan plan as a way to ensure Medicare for future generations.

Hochul seized on Corwin's position and cast herself as the protector of Medicare in a district with a large population of voters over 55. Her television ads hammered the issue even as Corwin tried to shift her position, suggesting she would favor changing the Ryan plan if elected.

The race drew attention and more than $2 million from both national parties and several independent groups. Ryan and Gov. Christie endorsed Corwin, while former President Bill Clinton recorded a phone call for Hochul, and New York's popular Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo released an ad supporting her.

The married Lee, who had just started his second term, abruptly resigned after a gossip website published a shirtless cellphone photo he sent to a woman he had been flirting with on Craigslist.