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Medicare idea puts GOP seat upstate at risk

BUFFALO -- The contest to fill a vacant U.S. House seat in upstate New York was tightening up in a special election that was supposed to be an easy win for Republicans. Instead, it has become a referendum on the party's controversial plan to transform Medicare, the government health plan for seniors.

A Siena College poll published Saturday showed Democrat Kathy Hochul with a slight lead over Republican Jane Corwin, 42-38 percent, in the race to succeed Republican Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned in February after shirtless photos he sent to a woman were published online. Wealthy tea party candidate Jack Davis had 12 percent support -- far behind but still drawing enough to affect a close race in today's special election.

The 26th Congressional District, which covers a swath of rural and suburban towns between Buffalo and Rochester, is among the most conservative in the state and one of only four that favored Republican John McCain over President Barack Obama in 2008.

But Corwin, a state assemblywoman and a multimillionaire, has seen her lead evaporate in recent weeks 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 the solvency of Medicare for future generations.

Hochul, the Erie County clerk, quickly 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 have hammered the issue even as Corwin has tried to recalibrate her position, suggesting she'd favor tweaking and changing the Ryan plan if elected.

Siena Poll Director Steve Greenberg said that voters in the district cited jobs, Medicare and the federal deficit as top issues and, "for those who say Medicare is the most important issue, voters are overwhelmingly supporting Hochul."

Davis' candidacy has further complicated matters for Republicans in a district that has many tea party supporters. Local GOP leaders tried to make hay of an encounter between Davis and a videographer Davis appeared to shove after the videographer taunted him for refusing to appear in a debate with Hochul and Corwin. The GOP tried to use the video to paint Davis as a bully.

But it backfired when the videographer turned out to be Corwin's chief of staff.

The race has drawn attention and more than $2 million from both national parties and several independent groups. Both Ryan and New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie have 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.

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