Republican Jane Corwin, left, and Democrat Kathy Hochul, participate… (Derek Gee / Associated Press )
Reporting from Batavia, N.Y. — Kathy Hochul, the Democrat within reach of a stunner in the special U.S. House election here Tuesday, is not yet two minutes into her pitch at a candidates' forum when she brings up her opposition to Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare.
Hochul, the Erie County clerk, mentions Ryan again a minute later and then two minutes later. At nine minutes, a reporter asks about Medicare, and the 52-year-old attorney offers a broad smile.
"I'm glad you asked that question," she said.
Indeed, if it were up to Hochul and the national Democrats pouring resources into her candidacy, she would talk about Medicare all day. Her opposition to Ryan's plan to radically change the program has become the cornerstone of her campaign, which in another year might have been considered a suicide mission in this solidly Republican district.
But thanks also to an independent candidate, the race in western New York is up for grabs. Democrats have seized the opportunity to turn the Rochester and Buffalo suburbs, and the farmland in between, into a battleground in a proxy war over Ryan's proposal.
Ryan's plan, approved by the Republican-led House, would make enormous changes in the government health programs — Medicare and Medicaid — that provide care to 100 million Americans. Ryan and his allies say the changes are needed if the federal government is ever to balance its books. Opponents say the plan would unravel the social safety net for the poorest Americans, while keeping taxes low for the wealthy.
Beyond the policy argument, a political debate rages: Can Ryan's plan be cast as the sort of principled stand that will win over Americans to the conservative cause? Or will it go down as an act of political hubris that hands dozens of races to Democrats next year?
Tuesday's results will be eagerly watched for answers.
Interest groups and political advocates from across the country are trying to tip the outcome. In an onslaught of broadcast and mail ads, Hochul, national Democrats and unions have characterized the Ryan plan as an attempt to "essentially end" Medicare.
GOP nominee Jane Corwin — with help from strategist Karl Rove's American Crossroads, the Chamber of Commerce and others — has spent weeks arguing that Democrats plan to save a program on a path to insolvency.
Days before the weekend's final push, the Center for Responsive Politics counted nearly $2 million from outside groups in a district where a GOP incumbent, Rep. Christopher Lee, won with 74% of the vote less than seven months ago. That was before Lee, who is married, sent a photo of himself shirtless to a potential date on Craigslist, and resigned after the picture surfaced.
But even as the campaign money flows, the race is not a clear-cut referendum on the Ryan plan.
Hochul is within reach of a victory in large part because of the candidacy of Jack Davis, an industrialist with "tea party" support running as an independent who in early polls appeared to be splitting the Republican vote.
Though he also opposes the Ryan plan, Davis has spent much of his time and more than $2.5 million of his own money hammering both major party opponents on jobs and trade.
"I think it's far more complicated than just a referendum on Ryan," said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at City University of New York. "But if Democrats win that seat, it will certainly be a sign to them that Medicare can be a winning issue."
Democrats argue that they don't need to win the race to prove that lesson. They've already committed to their strategy for recapturing dozens of districts lost to the GOP in the midterm rout in November.
"The three top issues in elections now and going forward are Medicare, Medicare and Medicare," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.
Hochul has been on message. The Ryan plan preserves tax breaks for big oil and top earners while it "breaks the contract that we've had with our seniors since 1965," she told the handful of voters gathered at the YWCA for the candidates' forum.
That's what worries swing voters like Elisa DiPietro, a retired teacher who came to the forum looking for candidates to "get down to the facts."
"I've only heard the negatives, the negatives of cutting back on the old people. I've taken care of my health and I'm in good health. I haven't had to use the services much. But when the time comes, am I going to get them?" she said.
Corwin has stressed that the GOP's proposed Medicare changes wouldn't take effect for 10 years, leaving many current recipients untouched. She paints the argument in stark terms — noting that the program has only 13 years before running out of money.
"I think a lot of politicians, and Kathy Hochul is one of them, rather than take a position on this would rather kick the can down the road and do nothing," she said