The special election to fill a House seat in upstate New York was supposed to be an easy victory for Republicans.
But less than two weeks before the May 24 vote, polls show a competitive contest between Republican Jane Corwin, 47, and Democrat Kathy Hochul, 52, in what's become the first electoral test of GOP budget policies. The race also has drawn an avalanche of spending by interest groups, as well as both national parties.
"Jane Corwin said she would vote for the 2012 Republican budget that would essentially end Medicare," says a TV ad for Hochul, underscoring the degree to which the national debate in Washington is framing this race.
Corwin hits back in her own ad, saying Hochul "refuses to tell us her plan to cut the deficit."
Until recently, Democrats had all but written off the state's 26th congressional district spanning the suburban and rural communities between Rochester and Buffalo. The seat was left vacant in February, when incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned after shirtless photos surfaced that he'd sent to a woman he'd met on Craigslist.
It's the most conservative district in New York; Republican John McCain carried it by 6 points over President Barack Obama in 2008. And it could be eliminated next year when the state loses two seats as lawmakers redraw congressional lines as required by law following the 2010 Census.
But this week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it would spend $250,000 on ads to help Hochul, the Erie County clerk. The campaign committee had already contributed about $100,000 to Hochul for research and other campaign operations.
The House Majority PAC, a new independent group launched to help House Democrats, announced late Friday it would also begin TV advertising to help Hochul.
The GOP isn't taking any chances. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, headlined a fundraiser for Corwin last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee has pledged to advertise and a major GOP-aligned group has gotten involved, too.
Corwin, a wealthy state assemblywoman who has lent her campaign nearly $2 million, has seen her lead in polls evaporate after endorsing the budget plan crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would cut billions from Medicare, the government health care plan for the elderly. Corwin has defended the proposed changes to Medicare even as members of the House GOP leadership have softened their stance on the immediacy of enacting them amid an outcry from seniors.
"This is going to be a referendum on the Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it," Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who heads the House Democratic campaign committee, told The Associated Press.
Hochul has used her television ads to hammer Corwin on Medicare and the two rivals tangled over the issue in their first televised debate Thursday.
"If we keep Medicare in the same plan we're going to run out of money by 2029," Corwin said.
Hochul argued that the Ryan plan could force seniors into poverty, adding: "It's not the American way. I won't go there."
With television ads swamping the district, several voters said they were aware of the differences between the candidates on Medicare and that the issue could affect how they vote.
"I work in a hospital and we would definitely be impacted by changes to Medicare," said Lockport resident Stephanie Douglas, an independent who was leaning toward Hochul.
And local nonprofit executive Michael Genga was urging his staunchly Republican mother to support Hochul, saying: "If Jane Corwin is supporting people who want to end Medicare, that's just way off base."
The Medicare issue aside, the race also has been complicated by the presence of a wealthy third party candidate, Jack Davis. He's a former Republican who has run for the seat three times as a Democrat and is now competing as a tea party contender. Many local tea party leaders have denounced Davis's candidacy, but he's spent heavily on the race and polls show him drawing votes away from Corwin.
Steve Greenberg, director of the Siena Poll which has conducted district surveys, said Davis's presence on the ballot had improved Democrats' chances of taking the seat.
"If Corwin can convince voters he's not the real conservative in the race, she can get them back. Or at least convince Davis voters to stay home," Greenberg said.
Republicans and independent conservative groups are trying to marginalize Davis while insisting Corwin's troubles have little to do with her support for the Ryan budget.
"This is about western New York values," Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy said. He also dismissed Davis as a "political opportunist," warning, "Don't let our friends and neighbors be fooled."
The House Republican campaign committee, for its part, has seized on a video showing Davis in a dustup with a Corwin staffer and emailed it around to reporters. And Davis is the target of a major television ad campaign by American Crossroads, the independent conservative group that spent over $70 million to help Republicans reclaim the House majority in 2010. The Crossroads ad accuses Davis of trying to buy the seat.
"You can't trust Jack," the ad warns.
The race comes eighteen months after a similar New York special election in 2009 when a Democrat, Bill Owens, won a conservative upstate district in a 3-way race that split votes between the Republican and tea party candidates.
Republicans, here and in Washington, hope this race won't be a repeat.