New York’s 26th district is Republican territory. Many national political reporters characterize the district as “Buffalo-area,” which is geographically true—but a wide gulf exists between the blue-collar city and the glistening suburbs that skilled gerrymanderers shoe-horned into this suburban and exurban Congressional district.
Buffalo is the quintessential Rust Belt town where the Democratic primary is effectively the general election—there hasn’t been a Republican in the mayor’s office since 1965. But the 26th is where one finds large subdivisions, sprawling farms and conservative voters.
Republicans outnumber Democrats by 24,000, and the median income is $55,028, 10 percent higher than the national average. The district is overwhelmingly white, and largely made up of family units.
The 26th has sent a long string of Republicans to Washington, most of whom enjoyed powerful positions in the Republican party. Jack Kemp, the former quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, made frequent appearances on the Republican National Convention’s stage, most notably as the vice-presidential nominee in 1996. After Kemp, Representativ Bill Paxon became chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and was a key adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign.
Representative Tom Reynolds, Paxon’s successor, also served as head of the NRCC and was a major fundraiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign. During the 2002 redistricting, then–Vice President Cheney personally leaned on state legislators in Albany to make the 26th even more Republican-friendly, so that Reynolds could “vote like a Southern conservative.” Even as Northeastern Republicans were swept away by the Democratic, anti-Bush tide of 2006, the Bush-branded Reynolds held onto his seat.
The current Republican nominee for the seat, Jane Corwin, personifies the wealthy suburban nature of the district. She comes from Clarence, New York, which is about the only place in the area where one can find subdivisions full of million-dollar McMansions. The median income in Clarence is an astonishing $82,576. Corwin is funding her campaign with $3 million in personal wealth, earned from her family’s lucrative telephone book company, and advocates a “business approach” to government.
The election should be a formality for Corwin, but a funny thing has happened in this conservative heartland of New York state—Republicans aren’t so popular anymore.
New data from Public Policy Polling shows that voters in the 26th actually think the new Republican majority in the House is doing a worse job than the Democratic majority that preceded it. Congressional Republicans have a 26 percent approval rating in the district, while 59 percent disapprove. President Obama isn’t all that popular—only 42 percent approve of the job he’s doing, and 51 percent disapprove—but House speaker John Boehner has a 28 percent approval rating with 45 percent disapproving.
Why the change? The much-discussed reason is, of course, the Republican plan to dismantle Medicare. Corwin endorsed it, and Democrat Kathy Hochul has been hammering her in advertisements and handshake events ever since. The district has many aging residents; many of the rural areas are made up of small bedroom communities of only a few thousand. Taking away federal medical care for seniors might play well at the Heritage Foundation or on Fox News, but not here. Polls now show Hochul with a six-point lead, with Medicare as the leading issue for voters.
Corwin’s campaign has clearly realized this. It came out with an ad last week tried to muddy the water by accusing Hochul of also wanting to harm Medicare, because she at one point said everything should be on the table when it comes to deficit reduction. And on Saturday, Corwin made an eleventh-hour decision to renounce her support for Medicare vouchers.
Another less-noticed reason for Republicans’ waning support in the area might involve a terrible tragedy that happened right in Corwin’s backyard. In February 2009, a Contintental Airlines flight headed for the Buffalo airport crashed into a home in Clarence, killing everyone on board and one resident of the house.
The region was traumatized by the largest single loss of life in recent memory. The families of the victims became well-known in local media, and organized a campaign to strengthen aviation rules—the pilots of that flight were over-tired and under-trained.
The families succeeded, only to see the new Republican House promptly strip the protections out of an FAA reauthorization bill earlier this year. The move barely registered on the national radar, but it was a huge deal in Western New York. It dominated the front page of the Buffalo News and led local newscasts. There’s no question this greatly damaged the GOP in the eyes of many voters—Western New York is above all a very tight-knit community, and sympathy for victims of the tragedy extended across party lines. Few understood how Republicans could so casually junk the safety rules inspired by the crash of Flight 3407.
Friday, Boehner and Corwin made a risky Hail Mary pass to undo the damage. Boehner announced that he removed the controversial amendment from the FAA bill. His statement prominently noted appreciation for “Jane’s advocacy on behalf of the families of Continental Flight 3407.” Almost simultaneously, Corwin’s campaign was out with a statement saying “Today’s victory is not a Democratic or Republican victory, it is a victory for our entire community and the families of Flight 3407.”
While she clearly tried to depoliticize the victory, it's almost impossible to not see the naked partisan motivations. Representative Brian Higgins, the Democrat holding a neighboring seat, wryly noted that “sometimes people do the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
Perhaps Corwin will receive credit for saving the flight safety rules, but it obviously drew attention to the fact the GOP went after them in the first place. Promising to make your party a little less evil isn’t exactly a winning argument.
By trying to show her political clout, Corwin’s camp was clearly hoping for an event similar to what may have saved Representative Tom Reynolds in 2006. He was running a close election against an anti–free trade Republican that chose the Democratic line for a shot at Reynolds. Things looked shaky for Reynolds, but in the days before the election, a blizzard devastated the region. The Bush administration quickly pumped in federal aid and credited Reynolds for his help in securing it, which many local pundits think saved Reynolds’s skin. He won by a narrow margin.
But come Tuesday, Corwin may find out she has a problem Reynolds did not—the Republican party didn’t create that blizzard.