GOP Blames Scare Tactics for New York Loss.
WASHINGTON—Republican leaders, faced with the unexpected loss of a congressional seat in New York, said Wednesday that a GOP proposal to overhaul Medicare played a role in the election upset Tuesday.
But they accused Democrats of deploying scare tactics aimed at the Medicare plan that could sabotage bipartisan efforts to rein in federal spending and debt this year.
Democrat Kathy Hochul won the House seat from western New York, in a Republican-dominated district, after a campaign in which she consistently attacked the GOP Medicare plan.
She carried 47% of the vote, to 43% for Republican Jane Corwin and 9% for a third-party candidate.
In November, a Republican won the same House seat with 68% of the vote.
The victory emboldened Democrats on Wednesday to stand firm against changes in the program in coming budget talks. It is also solidifying their strategy of making their stance on Medicare a centerpiece of the party's 2012 campaign message.
Republicans tried to minimize the significance of the issue in the special election, but they acknowledged that the results signaled that they would have to do a better job of explaining their Medicare proposal to voters—or else change the subject.
"It can be a powerful political weapon," Rep. Paul Ryan (R.,Wis.), said in an interview on MSNBC Wednesday, citing ads attacking the plan he authored. "People in the Republican Party are nervous because of these kinds of ads."
At a later appearance Wednesday, Mr. Ryan said Democrats were "shamelessly demagoguing and distorting" his plan. "We call it 'Mediscare.' "
He said the result could be "political paralysis'' as the two parties try to negotiate measures to reduce federal budget deficits. "That means nothing gets done. That means we go further down the path to debt," he said.
Under Mr. Ryan's plan, which the House approved last month on a near party-line vote, Medicare would no longer be a fee-for-service program. Instead future retirees would choose from a menu of private insurance plans, which would be subsidized by the government. People now age 55 and older would not be affected.
The special election in the New York district, between Rochester and Buffalo, was watched nationally because Democrats had framed it as a referendum on the Medicare overhaul.
Ms. Corwin, the GOP candidate, had endorsed the plan, drawing attacks from Ms. Hochul and from Democrats around the country.
"Medicare is huge," said Carol Kociela, a Democrat and retired Amherst, N.Y., bank executive who voted for Ms. Hochul. "When that whole issue started playing on the ads, you could tell immediately that people were very concerned and seriously considering whether or not they could vote for a conservative."
The results emboldened Democrats who have been arguing that their party should give no ground to the GOP on cutting Medicare in negotiations over a deficit-reduction package. Members of both parties say a spending-cut package is needed in order to build support in Congress for raising the nation's borrowing limit, a step the Treasury says must be done by Aug. 2 to avoid default.
Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the New York results bolstered her plans to make the Medicare debate central to Senate races across the country in 2012.
"The results provide clear evidence that Democratic senators and Senate candidates will be able to play offense across the country by remaining focused on the Republican effort to end Medicare," said Ms. Murray.
Mr. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, said at a conference on fiscal issues Wednesday that Republicans were holding back on a proposal to overhaul Social Security because they feared Democrats would use it to stir voter anger.
"We believe that if we put a Social Security plan out there, it would be too easy for Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to demagogue it,'' he said, referring to the Senate and House Democratic leaders.
In an earlier speech at that conference, former President Bill Clinton warned Democrats against standing pat and fighting proposals to rein in Medicare costs.
"You should draw the conclusion that people made the judgment that the proposal in the Republican budget is not the right one," he said. "But I'm afraid that Democrats will draw the conclusion that because Congressman Ryan's proposal is not the best one, we shouldn't do anything. I completely disagree with that."
Special elections sometimes foreshadow the results of the next general election. But just as often, they end up being completely unrelated to what's to come. Shortly before the 2010 election, for example, Democrats won a tough special election in Pennsylvania, only to lose dozens of House seats that year.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R., Texas), who is spearheading the Republican House campaigns, said Tuesday: "Obviously, each side would rather win a special election than lose, but to predict the future based on the results of this unusual race is naive and risky."
The election results come at time when some House Republicans have been trying to draw attention to their efforts to spur economic growth and stimulate job creation.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), who has given a series of speeches to argue that the GOP agenda is broader than cutting government spending, on Thursday will propose a package of job-creation measures that will include ideas about overhauling the tax code and curbing regulation.