Newly-elected Congresswoman Kathy Hochul, D-New York, was a terrific candidate, as good a contender as the Democratic Party could have asked for in the special election to fill the open congressional seat representing New York’s 26th congressional district.

But Hochul did not stand a chance of winning a district so safely Republican that it backed John McCain for president in the 2008 election that saw the rest of the state back Barack Obama. In recent Congressional elections, Republicans have gained as much as 70 percent of the vote. New York’s 26th district backs Republicans by tradition and nature. And it was going to back Republican nominee Jane Corwin to fill the seat vacated by Republican Congressman Chris Lee after the married man got caught trolling for dates on the Internet.

Democratic strategists in Washington weren’t even taking Hochul seriously when the campaign got going. It was Emily’s List and the Working Families Party, a union-backed grassroots party, that kept talking up Hochul—who ran on the third party’s ballot line, taking advantage of New York’s fusion law, which allows cross-endorsements.

Then came Paul Ryan.

The House Budget Committee chair’s budget plan contained a proposal to end Medicare as we know it. Ryan’s scheme—to shift Medicare spending away from providing health-care coverage and toward the accounts of for-profit insurance companies—was transparently obvious.

The American people rejected it.

Polls suggested that roughly 80 percent of Americans thought Ryan’s approach was wrong. Overwhelming majorities favor taxing the rich or cutting Pentagon spending as alternatives to cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Voters told Ryan and other Republicans directly, at town hall meetings in April.

Ryan kept spinning the fantasy that Americans really were in favor of gutting Medicare—even as nervous Republican leaders began to distance themselves from it.

Now, however, Republican discomfort with Ryan’s plan is going to spike. That’s because it has cost the party a congressional seat.

Hochul’s 48-42 win has not just shifted a congressional seat. It has, as Erie County (NY) Democratic Committee chair Leonard Lenihan explained Tuesday night, reshaped the agenda for the next several years.

Hochul says her win sends a message: protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “It’s that simple,” says the new congresswoman.

Sure, Ryan and his compatriots will try to spin this one.

They will say that third-party candidate Jack Davis, who took 9 percent of the vote (while 1 percent went to Green Ian Murphy), cost Corwin the election. But that is false. Davis ran a hybrid campaign that sought to attract Tea Party votes while building on the base he had built as a union-backed critic of free trade when he ran for the seat in 2006 as a Democrat. Every poll, every analysis on the ground, makes it clear that Davis attracted support from Republicans and Democrats. The Davis is a spoiler argument “is as faulty as the tortured rationale Republicans have used to justify the Ryan budget,” says veteran New York election strategist Matthew Rey.

Republican strategists and their amen corner in the media will claim that other issues were in play, that Corwin stumbled as a candidate, that the weather was too good or too bad.

But the bottom line remains the same: Hochul’s win was a clean one.

And it was made possible by her defense of Medicare.

When Ryan went after Medicare, Hochul recognized an issue and she grabbed it, focusing her campaign on the need to preserve Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the rest of the safety net. The Democrat’s message was steady and unyielding. She promised to “fight the Republican budget that aims to decimate Medicare and any Republican efforts to privatize Social Security” and said: “I will stop at nothing to protect the guarantees we’ve made to our seniors over the last seventy-six years.

With her focus of preserving Medicare and Social Security concerns, Hochul crept ahead in the polls and, on Tuesday, she won a House seat that every serious pundit had claimed, just weeks ago, was out of her reach. 

As the results came in, Eddie Vale, communications director of national the “Protect Your Care” campaign, mused: “Evidently Medicare wasn’t just a winning issue in NY-26—it came thundering off the top rope with a flying elbow worthy of Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage.”

“The only reason this race in a red district, that John McCain won, was even competitive was because of the rejection—especially by seniors—of the Republican budget that ends Medicare,” explained Vale. “This is not just our take, it is demonstrated by Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty refusing to clearly say if they will support a plan that even Newt Gingrich called ‘radical’ and ‘right-wing social engineering.’  It is why a growing number of Republican Senators will be voting against it this week. The message the people in NY-26 sent tonight was loud and clear—hands off our Medicare.”

Dan Cantor, the executive director of the Working Families Party, was blunt about the message from New York for national political players.

“Tonight’s victory sends the message loud and clear to Washington: ‘Hands off our Medicare.’ Vulnerable Republicans like (Massachusetts Senator) Scott Brown are smart to move away from the fringe of their party and put an end to the Tea Party’s attempts at right-wing social engineering,” said Cantor. “Moreover, that tonight’s win for the Democratic-Working Families Party candidate came at the expense of two self-funded millionaires and Karl Rove is all the more powerful a reminder that ordinary people can beat back the wealthy and powerful special interests when they come together in singular purpose.”

If Democrats read the results right, they can take the Medicare fight national, argued Cantor, a veteran political strategist with decades of experience working local, state and national elections.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, seems to get it. 

She’s preparing for the 2012 election season with a new line: “The fight of this Congress and beyond will be to preserve Medicare and not have it abolished. The three most important issues we should be talking about are Medicare, Medicare, and Medicare.”

Pelosi knows that if the 2012 presidential and Congressional races are referendums on preserving Medicare as we know it, Democrats will win up and down the ballot.

How far down? Maybe even to Paul Ryan’s district in Wisconsin.

Ryan’s challenger, Democrat Rob Zerban, was weighing in from Wisconsin.

“Tonight it is clear that Representative Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare is the wrong choice for our families, and we will not stand for it. Voters in New York’s 26th Congressional District rejected Paul Ryan’s backward vision of America that puts our seniors at risk. If New Yorkers don’t want Medicare replaced with a voucher plan, you can be sure that families here in Wisconsin’s First District will have something to say in the next election. Wisconsinites put our trust in Paul Ryan only to be sold out to special interests,” said Zerban, a county supervisor who is mounting an aggressive campaign against the Republican incumbent. “We have our work cut out for us to put our nation back on track, but ordinary people have spoken up tonight to say, ‘Hands off our Medicare, Paul Ryan.’” 

That is the message, from New York to WIsconsin and across the country.