Kathy Hochul in Amherst. (May 24, 2011)

Kathy Hochul in Amherst. (May 24, 2011) Credit: AP

Kathy Hochul told her supporters they had picked the right issue to fight a Republican on long-held Republican turf.

The Democrat rode a wave of voter discontent over the national GOP's plan to change Medicare and overcame decades of GOP dominance here to capture Tuesday's special election in New York's 26th Congressional District.

Hochul defeated Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin on Tuesday night, capturing 47 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Corwin, to win the seat vacated by disgraced Republican Chris Lee. A wealthy tea party candidate, Jack Davis, took 9 percent.

The special election that became a referendum on the health care plan for the nation's seniors may serve as a warning shot to further GOP efforts to cut popular entitlement programs.

"The three reasons a Democrat was elected to Congress in the district were Medicare, Medicare and Medicare," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said in an interview.

Hochul's supporters at a union hall in Amherst, outside Buffalo, chanted, "Medicare! Medicare!"

And she replied in kind.

"Did we not have the right issues on our side?" she exhorted. "We cannot balance our budget on the backs of our seniors."

"How about ending big handouts for Big Oil?" she said. "How about making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share? We can do all that and not decimate Medicare."

The rural-suburban district between Buffalo and Rochester is one of New York's most conservative and has been held by a Republican — including national names like Jack Kemp — for years. But Corwin saw her early lead dissolve after coming out in favor of a Republican budget plan that would cut billions from Medicare.

Hochul's victory gave a lift to Democrats still reeling from an electoral drubbing last November that cost the party control of the House. It also bolstered their resolve to push back on GOP efforts to cut Medicare and other entitlements — efforts that have drawn support among some tea party members but are widely opposed by independent voters.

National leaders were quick to react.

President Barack Obama, traveling in Europe, issued a statement saying he looked forward to working with Hochul.

"Kathy and I both believe that we need to create jobs, grow our economy and reduce the deficit in order to compete with other nations," Obama said.

Vice President Joe Biden personally called Hochul to offer his congratulations.

Corwin conceded to supporters gathered at a strip mall outside Buffalo.

"The discourse of this election leaves me concerned. We cannot continue to play 'gotcha' politics and avoid confronting the real issues facing this country," Corwin said, her voice breaking.

The seat became vacant in February when Lee, a married father, resigned after shirtless photos he sent to a woman he'd flirted with on Craigslist surfaced online.

The district, which covers a swath of rural and suburban towns between Buffalo and Rochester, was one of only four districts in the state — out of 29 — that favored Republican John McCain over Obama in 2008. It's also been mentioned as a possible target of redistricting, since the state must trim two congressional districts next year as a result of the 2010 census.

But the race emerged as a test of the viability of a budget plan crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that included sweeping changes to Medicare. All but a handful of House Republicans voted in favor of the budget plan, and Corwin said she would have supported it as well, insisting such cuts would preserve Medicare for seniors in the future.

Hochul seized on Corwin's position and quickly 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'd favor changing the Ryan plan if elected.

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.

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