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N.Y. special election a bad omen for GOP

By J.J. Balaban Tuesday was the 144th day of 2011, but from a political perspective, it may be remembered as the day 2010 ended.

By J.J. Balaban

Tuesday was the 144th day of 2011, but from a political perspective, it may be remembered as the day 2010 ended.

The Republican surge of 2010 hit a wall this week when Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special congressional election near Buffalo, N.Y. The district's former Republican representative, Chris Lee, resigned in the wake of revelations that, despite being married, he had sent suggestive photos of himself to a woman he was wooing via Craigslist.

In 2008, the district produced more votes for Republican presidential nominee John McCain than any other in New York, and Hochul was widely expected to lose when this campaign began. But the Democrat's campaign caught fire when she began criticizing opponent Jane Corwin for endorsing a GOP proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

While too much can be read into any special election, it would be perilous for Republicans to ignore the warning signs in Hochul's 6-percentage-point victory. As the New York Times' Nate Silver noted, the district would be expected to produce a 12-point Republican victory in a neutral political environment. In light of that and Corwin's spending advantage, the result is remarkable.

Hochul's election isn't the only indication of a Democratic resurgence. Alvin Brown shocked the Florida political establishment last week when he was elected Jacksonville's first African American mayor, as well as its first Democratic elected mayor in 20 years. Jacksonville is solidly conservative, having given Republican Sen. Marco Rubio 53 percent of the vote last year and President George W. Bush 58 percent in 2004.

Of course, this race was not remotely driven by national issues, and Brown, whom I advised, won because he attracted support from Republicans and independents. But his victory still suggests a significant shift away from the environment of 2010, when virtually no Democrat was able to attract a significant amount of Republican votes. The ultraconservative, manifestly unqualified Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, for example, corralled the votes of 81 percent of Delaware Republicans that year.

Politicians are normally inclined to heed clear signals of public discontent, but Republican opinion leaders in Washington seem to be ignoring these warnings. Perhaps that's because the party successfully defied the normal rules of politics in 2010. Rather than moving toward the center to attract swing voters after poor showings in the elections of 2006 and 2008, it moved decidedly to the right. Today's House Republicans are markedly more conservative than the GOP majority of 2006.

The Republicans fired up their base enough to enjoy a huge victory last year, and as a result the party is being led by those who believe the path to victory is ideological purity. But this week's results from western New York suggest that what worked in 2010 may not next year. Indeed, Republicans may have erred in seeing 2010 as a mandate instead of a repudiation of "the other guys."

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in this region, which in November replaced three suburban Democratic congressmen with Republicans: Mike Fitzpatrick in Bucks County, Pat Meehan in Delaware County, and Jon Runyan in Burlington County. The current House majority has shown an almost unprecedented level of party discipline, and Fitzpatrick, Meehan, and Runyan have not been exceptions. They have toed the party line on virtually every major issue, voting to repeal health-care reform, eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and block regulations to address global warming. They also voted for the Republican budget that would replace Medicare with vouchers - the same proposal that's getting much of the credit for Corwin's defeat in New York.

So will Fitzpatrick, Meehan, and Runyan start to compile more moderate and independent voting records? Or will they keep partying like it's 2010?