BUFFALO, N.Y. —Democrats picked off a heavily Republican upstate New York congressional seat Tuesday night in a special election that became a referendum on Medicare.
Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul edged past Republican state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin to win the seat in the 26th Congressional District.
The rural-suburban district between Buffalo and Rochester is one of the state's most conservative. But Corwin saw her early lead dissolve after coming out in favor of a Republican budget plan that would cut billions from Medicare, the government health plan for seniors.
With 83 percent of precincts reporting, Hochul had 48 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for Corwin.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
A chant of "Kathy, Kathy" went up at the Hochul headquarters at a suburban Amherst union hall.
A third candidate, tea party contender Jack Davis, also siphoned votes away from Corwin.
The seat became vacant in February when Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned after shirtless photos he sent to a woman surfaced online.
The 26th Congressional District, which covers a swath of rural and suburban towns between Buffalo and Rochester, was one of only four districts in the state — out of 29 — that favored Republican John McCain over President Obama in 2008.
But Corwin, a multimillionaire state assemblywoman, watched her lead evaporate after expressing support for a plan crafted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to strip billions from Medicare and recast it as a voucher program. Corwin said she supported the Ryan plan as a way to ensure Medicare for future generations.
Hochul quickly seized on Corwin's position and cast herself as the protector of Medicare in a district with a large population of voters over 55. Her television ads hammered the issue even as Corwin tried to shift her position, suggesting she'd favor changing the Ryan plan if elected.
Davis further vexed Republicans in a district that has many tea party supporters. Local GOP leaders tried to make hay of an encounter between Davis and a videographer Davis appeared to shove after the videographer taunted him for refusing to appear in a debate with Hochul and Corwin. The GOP tried to use the video to paint Davis as a bully.
But it backfired when the videographer turned out to be Corwin's chief of staff.
The race drew attention and more than $2 million from both national parties and several independent groups. Ryan and New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Corwin, while former President Clinton recorded a phone call for Hochul and New York's popular Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo released an ad supporting her.
The married Lee, who had just started his second term, abruptly resigned after a gossip website published a shirtless cell phone photo he sent to a woman he'd been flirting with on Craigslist.