May 25, 2011

NEW YORK (AFP) – The US Democratic Party has dealt a blow to Republicans' divisive budget-cutting plans by scoring an upset victory in a tight congressional race seen as a bellwether for the 2012 national vote.

Democratic challenger Kathy Hochul appeared to have defeated Republican Jane Corwin for the seat in New York's 26th Congressional District vacated by Chris Lee, a Republican who resigned in a scandal over marital infidelity.

With most ballots counted, Hochul maintained a slim but consistent lead over Corwin, with both the local ABC television affiliate and The New York Times reporting late Tuesday that Hochul had won.

What would have otherwise been a purely New York battle for a Republican "safe" seat became a closely watched litmus test when controversial Republican proposals for reform of the Medicare health program took center stage.

Corwin, a New York state legislator, backed the Republican proposal, which aims to reduce massive spending on the program for elderly people as part of a plan to cut the country's out-of-control budget deficit.

The Medicare proposal was seen as risky by strategists who have long treated the program as politically untouchable.

But Republicans, who paint President Barack Obama's Democrats as feeding the deficit, turned the idea into a central plank of next year's campaign for the White House and Congress.

The fact that Hochul campaigned against the Republican proposal -- and won -- appears to have handed the Democrats a blueprint for much wider clashes.

"It's symbolic. If the Democrat wins in a Republican district that would signify to the Republican Party that some of their positions, especially on social security, Medicare and Medicaid probably should be rethought," New York University politics professor Steven Brams said.

"Now Republicans are suffering the consequences. We do need to discuss long-term solutions (to the budget deficit)," he said. "But it's perhaps not advantageous to the Republicans."

The district, a staunchly conservative swath of western New York state that includes parts of the cities of Buffalo and Rochester, was one of just four in the state where Republican John McCain beat Obama in the 2008 White House race.

That made the Democratic upset all the more dramatic.

"It is an important national bellwether," Don Levy, the director of the Siena Research Institute, said of the race.

"If the Democrats win, then they can say that in a traditionally Republican district, concerns over Medicare tipped the scales for the Democratic candidate," he said.

The elderly are the most stalwart bloc of US voters, with a weight at the polls disproportionate their numbers, and elderly voters are fiercely protective of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

The race has unnerved some Republicans in Washington, who fear it augurs a difficult campaign season ahead of the November 2012 elections. Voters will choose a president and one-third of the US Senate at the same time.


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