How Hochul pulled off an unlikely win in a staunchly Republican district

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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New York’s 26th district was supposed to be a safe seat for the Republicans.

Back in February, right after Republican Chris Lee resigned when it was revealed the married congressman sent shirtless pictures of himself to a woman who posted a dating ad on Craigslist, Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin looked like the golden girl.

At the time, a Republican strategist in New York described Corwin to The Daily Caller as a great candidate to replace Lee: “She has both financial capability—like a proven ability to fundraise. She’s enormously popular in the area, and very good media skills and speaking ability.”

Corwin promised to throw a seven-figure sum of her money into the race, making her a formidable contender, especially in a district that has elected a Democrat just once since 1953. Republicans moved quickly after Lee’s resignation to hold a nominating process, ultimately settling on Corwin, for whom the National Republican Congressional Committee immediately voiced their support.

By that point, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo hadn’t yet called a special election, and no one was certain whether Democrats would even try to compete for the seat, unlikely as they seemed to win it.

Flash-forward to April 29 when Siena releases the first poll on the race, and Corwin only leads Democrat Kathy Hochul by 5 points. Jack Davis, the third party candidate running on the “Tea Party” ballot line, had a whopping 23 percent of the vote.

Republicans and other Corwin supporters sprung into action with everyone from the NRCC to American Crossroads to Tea Party Express to the National Organization for Marriage throwing money into ads supporting Corwin, or, more often, attacking her opponents, especially Davis.

The negative ads against Davis worked. When the next round of polling came out the weekend before the election, his share of the vote had dropped to about 12 percent. Except his votes hadn’t gone to Corwin like expected. They’d gone to Hochul, who went on to the win the election Tuesday by a comfortable 4-point margin.

So what happened?

Most of the blame, say two New York Republican political consultants, should be laid on Corwin’s poorly run campaign.

To begin with, her campaign did not start out with a solid message to define her. Instead of running ads telling voters who Jane Corwin was, “they go negative immediately out of the gate,” said one of the consultants.

“The Democrats defined her as the person from Wall Street, and Wall Street, up there, has a negative connotation,” said the other consultant. “That goes back to the fact that her campaign team never defined Jane as ‘local girl does well,’ ‘the hockey mom,’ ‘the soccer mom.’”

There was no clear message, both consultants said. Hochul, on the other hand, had a very clear message, and one that stuck – that Corwin supported House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which meant she supposedly wanted to end Medicare. The statement was not accurate, of course, but as one consultant pointed out, the full explanation was too long for a campaign ad.

“There’s an explanation, and it makes sense,” the consultant said, “But it’s not a 15 second sound byte. And when you have this vision of someone pushing grandma over the cliff, that’s pretty powerful.”

The Corwin campaign did not respond to the Medicare issue until Monday, the day before the election, when Corwin said she did not support all aspects of the Ryan budget.

“That’s crazy,” said one consultant. “That’s insane. You go a month and get the hell beat out of you and then you respond?”

The second consultant expressed a similar opinion, saying that when you’re putting out that kind of newsworthy announcement the day before Election Day, “you know you have a problem.”

The Corwin campaign did have one clear message: from the outset, it tried to brand Hochul as a Pelosi Democrat, applying the same tactic that had worked so well in the November midterm elections. But later in the election, it turned out that Nancy Pelosi, now the House minority leader, was sending mail to the district on behalf of Hochul.

The ads were a miscalculation on the part of the Corwin campaign, the second consultant said. “The D.C. Democrats would have never asked Pelosi to mail into the district for Hochul if Pelosi’s numbers in the district were bad. So they clearly had been getting numbers that were pretty good.”

The last major incident that both consultants cite is the ad put out by Corwin’s campaign that showed Jack Davis swatting away a tracker with a camera. The video was supposed to be scandalous, but the tracker turned out to be Jane Corwin’s congressional chief of staff, Michael Mallia, and instead of hurting Davis, the ad blew up in her face.

“It’s amateur hour,” said the second consultant.

“They made Jack Davis look like the victim,” said the first consultant, adding that it “really gave a negative image to her campaign.”

Indeed, between the first Siena poll conducted at the end of April and the second conducted in the days before her election, Corwin’s favorables dropped precipitously.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time, said the first consultant. Outside help had started flowing in by that point, much of it going toward attacking Jack Davis. But the “tracker nonsense blew up right in the middle of that. So instead of those votes shifting from Davis to Corwin, they were going to Hochul. People don’t want to associate with that bad image, bad operation. They don’t remember the whole story, they just know it was bad.”

“When you start trying to piece it together [why Corwin lost] you can’t put your finger on one thing,” said the first consultant. “When you start putting the collective effect of all these things together, her campaign team did a terrible job.”

“It was a mess,” said the second consultant.

There has been much debate over the last 24 hours as to whether or not the election was a referendum on the Ryan budget that will be replicated in the coming 2012 election. Opinions are mixed on the issue, but the first political consultant opined that whether or not this race was symptomatic of a larger trend that was there already, it is certainly there now.

“These guys should be sued for political malpractice,” said the first consultant of Corwin’s campaign operations. “Not only have they lost the seat, damaged her reputation, they’ve created an environment on a national level from something that wasn’t there … for the Republican leadership and Republican Party to try to defend what they did or didn’t do with this bill.”

The second consultant notes that Corwin’s campaign is not solely to blame alone. The NRCC, the consultant said, got in too late. The New York political machine – including the state party – did not exert the necessary leadership and there was also poor organization among the county chairs.