Blame Boehner if Corwin loses special election in NY-26

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With the GOP holding a commanding 48-seat lead in the United States House of Representatives, one would think that a special election in upstate New York shouldn’t merit much attention. Unfortunately it does and should serve as a wake-up call for Republicans if they want to retain control of the House of Representatives in November 2012.

This special election in New York’s Republican-leaning 26th Congressional District started off as a purely local affair. The second-term incumbent, Christopher Lee (R), beat a hasty departure from office after the revelation of his Craigslist habits and publication of shirtless pictures of him, which were somewhat less tasteful than Congressman Aaron Schock’s recent exposure on the cover of Men’s Health.

Republican nominee Jane Corwin is mired in a three-way slugfest to replace Lee. The latest survey conducted by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling (published May 9) gives Democrat Kathy Hochul a 35 percent to 31 percent lead over Corwin. Jack Davis, a former Democrat turned independent, is running on the Tea Party line and is polling at 24 percent.

Davis appears to be attracting voters who would be expected to support Corwin, but his presence in the race also appears to be siphoning votes from Hochul. Our take: even with Davis polling well, Corwin should still be winning (albeit by a small margin), not losing. As The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne observes, “[r]egistered Republicans substantially outnumber registered Democrats in the 26th,” and the now-departed Lee “won in 2010 with almost 74 percent of the vote.”

So how did things get so out of control in NY-26, particularly since this race wasn’t even on the radar of national Democrats until relatively recently? The Republican leadership in Washington deserves most, if not all, of the credit for this one.

As a fiscal conservative, Corwin has voiced support for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s ambitious plan to address the federal government’s dire fiscal situation. Unfortunately for Corwin, Democrats have grossly distorted Ryan’s plan, particularly the approach to establishing Medicare’s long-term viability. Since a majority of registered voters in NY-26 happen to be 45 or older, these scare tactics are resonating.

It would be easy to blame Congressman Ryan for launching such a lightening rod. We disagree (with emphasis). Ryan should be applauded for taking a solid first pass at a problem that leaders in both parties have been ignoring for years.

Our disappointment is with Speaker John Boehner. The Ryan budget plan has been poorly messaged and sold to the American public, and that responsibility falls on Speaker Boehner. The lack of a well-coordinated offense has already left Republican congressmen open to attack at numerous town hall confrontations across the country. Instead of taking pot shots at the GOP presidential field, Boehner could better use his time worrying about how Republicans will keep control of the House next year. If Boehner and his team don’t quickly recognize that ideas matter but that it’s the messaging that wins elections, then 2012 could be a real bloodletting experience for Congressional Republicans.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.