Democrat Kathy Hochul declared victory over Republican Jane Corwin in… (David Duprey/AP )
Reporting from Washington — The political risks of overhauling a popular entitlement program became a harsh reality for Republicans on Tuesday as a Democrat captured a House seat in a staunchly conservative New York district after a bruising battle over the future of Medicare.
Democrat Kathy Hochul's surprising victory in the special election in western New York was the first major blow to Republicans since their rise to power in the fall election. The upset, demonstrating the hurdles the GOP faces in selling its approach to deficit reduction, could signal trouble for dozens of Republicans in 2012.
Hochul defeated Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, an early favorite, 47% to 43%, with most votes counted. Jack Davis, a wealthy industrialist running as the "tea party" candidate, won 9%.
For weeks, the contest has been at the center of the national debate over Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan's proposal — backed by Corwin — to transform Medicare into a voucher-style program for future senior citizens as part of a plan to cut nearly $6 trillion in spending over the next decade.
Democrats claimed victory gleefully.
"We will keep the promise that we made to our seniors who spent their entire lives paying into a Medicare system so it would be there when they needed it," Hochul told supporters late Tuesday. "It's that simple."
Republicans argued it was third-party candidate Davis, not Medicare, who cost Corwin the race. Davis appeared to pull key votes away from Corwin and put the spotlight on the party's struggle to appease tea party supporters.
New York's 26th Congressional District was an unlikely place for Democrats to try to stage an upset. The suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, and the farmland in between, have a long history of voting Republican.
In November, incumbent Rep. Christopher Lee won the district with 74% of the vote. But Lee, married and a father, resigned this year after he was caught sending a photo of himself shirtless to a potential date via Craigslist.
In the confluence of Davis' candidacy and heated voter opposition to the Ryan budget plan, Democrats saw a rare chance to test out what is sure to be their strategy in political races across the country next year.
Hochul, the Erie County clerk, was an especially effective messenger. In ads and campaign appearances, she blasted Corwin for supporting a plan that would "essentially end Medicare" while protecting subsidies for big oil companies.
She was backed up by unions and national Democratic groups, which sought to turn the race into a referendum on the Ryan plan.
The message appeared to resonate with an aging and economically stymied corner of western New York. About 14% of the district is over the age of 65. Though the plan would affect those who are not yet seniors, the message cut into the support that typically would go to the Republican candidate.
Corwin, meanwhile, was fighting two fronts at once — Democrat Hochul and independent Davis.
With the aid of national tea party groups, she tried to undermine Davis' support by pointing out that he had run for the seat three times before — as a Democrat. Davis, who spent more than $2.5 million of his own money in the race, focused his campaign on promises to bring jobs back from overseas and boost the sagging economy. He also opposed the Ryan plan.
In late polls, Hochul appeared to be picking up support with independents and older voters. Corwin began backing away from the specifics of Ryan's plan, suggesting that it was just one of many options up for discussion.
Other Republicans have made similar remarks, as the House Republicans' rush to push the plan exposes cracks in party unity. Though Ryan was able to persuade nearly all of his Republican colleagues in the House to vote for the proposal, three GOP senators have said they won't support it when it comes up for a vote this week.
Still, Republicans insisted that there was little of national significance to be drawn from the three-way race. They also noted that Democrats won all but one hotly contested special election last cycle before losing control of the House in a November landslide.
"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," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats, for their part, saw the race as a template for contests to come.
"We served notice to the Republicans that we will fight them anywhere in America when it comes to defending and strengthening Medicare," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.