The big lie that got conservatives through the 2010 election cycle with so much success—that budgets can be balanced by going after “waste, fraud and abuse”—began to unravel as soon as newly elected Republican governors began to draw up their budgets and House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan tried to rebalance the federal paperwork by gutting Medicare.

Republican strategists had based their entire project on fostering the fantasy that Americans should be terrified about debt and deficits.

But then reality set in. Americans saw what the Republicans wanted to do in the name of debt reduction. And it was far more frightening than any number on the ledger page.

That shifted the political dynamic at the state level, where Democrats began winning special elections for legislative seats that should have stayed in Republican hands. And, now, Democrats could score their biggest victory of 2011, a redefining win in a contest for an open US House seat representing upstate New York.

The change in voting patterns that is taking place across the northern tier of the country, in states where Republicans made big gains in 2010 but are now threatened with serious setbacks, is striking.

Three weeks ago, in Wisconsin, a state Assembly seat vacated by a veteran Republican legislator who had resigned to become conservative Governor Scott Walker’s top aide should have been an easy hold. Republican Mike Huebsch had held the seat for sixteen years and state and national Republican organizations, as well as their corporate allies in Washington, were prepared to spend freely to retain it in the May 5 special election. But the controversy over Walker’s attempt to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights intervened, as did concerns regarding the governor’s plan to slash funding for schools and local governments across the state. That was an especially big deal in rural western Wisconsin—such a big deal that on May 5 voters selected Democrat Steve Doyle to fill the formerly Republican seat. “This victory is a resounding condemnation of Governor Walker’s anti-middle class agenda,” explained Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. “Tonight there should be many Republican legislators who represent districts typically less Republican than this one, questioning why they have rubberstamped Governor Walker’s extreme policies and followed his divisive leadership…. This election is a rejection of misplaced budget priorities that harm working families, a rejection of anti-democratic power grabs, a rejection of special interests over middle-class families.”

Two weeks ago, in Maine, a state Senate seat where the previous contest had split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans was to be filled in a special election that pitted well-matched contenders and well-funded contenders from the two parties.Democrat Cynthia Dill, who was identified in local media as the “most vocal State House opponent” of Republican Governor Paul LePage’s reactionary economic and social agenda, won with 68 percent of the vote. After knocking on doors across the Portland area district, Dill declared, “I have not heard a single person raise any substantive issue other than Governor LePage and the crisis of leadership in Augusta. I mean, not a single person!” The Portland Press-Herald echoed that sentiment, with a top columnist writing: “Officially, the good citizens of Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and a slice of Scarborough elected themselves a new state senator this week. Unofficially, they also sent a message.” That message, the newspaper headline suggested, was “unmistakable.” 

The same went for the message sent last week by voters in New Hampshire, where a legislative seat vacated by a top Republican was filled in a special election where the main issue was the right-wing agenda of the GOP majorities that now control both houses of the state legislature. Democrat Jennifer Daler won the contest with 58 percent of the vote, carrying every town in the district. “Jen Daler’s massive victory tonight is a complete and total rejection of the reckless Republican agenda that (New Hampshire House Speaker) Bill O’Brien has been forcing upon Granite Staters,” announced state Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley. “In one of the most Republican districts in the entire state, New Hampshire voters turned out in historic numbers to oppose this new out of control Republican majority.”

The trio of results from states with “GOP-controlled statehouses clearly demonstrates a trend of voters rebuking the extreme right-wing agendas pushed by Republicans,” observed the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

This week, the trend could extend to the federal level, when New York state voters decide what has become a referendum on the extreme right-wing agendas of Republican congressional leaders—particularly Budget Committee chair Ryan’s assault on Medicare.

Ryan’s name is not on the ballot in the special election to fill the open congressional seat representing the small towns and suburbs of western New York’s 26th District.

That’s a good thing, as every indication is that—despite the silly “Ryan for President” boomlet of recent days—the politically toxic congressman would almost certainly lose the previously “safe” Republican seat. 

But Ryan is, by all measures, the biggest issue in the contest. And he might still cost his party the seat.

There’s no question that Ryan’s ideas have put the Republican nominee in the race on the defensive.

This may shock DC insiders, who still imagine that the House Budget Committee chairman is peddling popular—or at least palatable—ideas. 

Not two months ago, the Wisconsin Republican convinced his colleagues in the House to endorse a budget plan that—via a voucher program—would use Medicare funds to enrich the private insurance firms that have donated so generously to his campaigns. That was the easy part, as Ryan’s colleagues certainly have a taste for this sort of pay-to-play politics. 

It was not much harder to get the GOP’s amen corner in the national media to go along with the fantasy that gutting Medicare was necessary in order to balance the federal budget. Ryan’s a charming fellow, so charming it seems that most reporters were more interested in stenographically noting Ryan’s talking points than they were in exploring the fact that—with its many tax breaks for billionaires and multinational corporations—will not balance the budget for decades.

But façade of inevitability crumbled when Ryan tried to sell his “ideas” to the American people.

They weren’t buying.

First, there were those raucous town-hall meetings in Ryan’s Wisconsin district, where voters angrily objected to his plan—while at the same time demanding to know why the congressman was determined to attack entitlement programs but was unwilling to tax the rich or get serious about cutting Pentagon waste. The town hall meeting protests spread to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. And now a variation on the objection has been raised in upstate New York.

Voters there will troop to the polls May 24 to fill what is supposed to be one of the most solidly Republican Congressional seats in the northeast. The district voted for Republicans George Bush and John McCain while the rest of New York state was handing Democratic presidential contenders landslide wins. And it resisted the Republican waves of 2004, 2006 and 2008, which shifted most of the state’s Congressional districts to the Democrats.  Indeed, the only reason the seat is open is because former Congressman Chris Lee had to quit after the married legislator got caught trolling the Internet for dates. When the seat went open earlier this year, however, everyone expected that the Craigslist Congressman would be replaced by an equally upstanding Republican.

Then Paul Ryan made issues matter.

Democratic contender Kathy Hochul, once written off as a sacrificial lamb, surged in the polls after she began attacking Ryan’s plan. As the Buffalo News notes, “The Hochul campaign…has recognized the special dynamics of what looms on May 24 and employs an aide with experience in special elections. The campaign has recognized early on that the educated voters who will vote on Election Day know their issues, that they know the term ‘Ryan budget,’ and they know that a major overhaul of Medicare as we know it is part of the deal that [Republican nominee Jane] Corwin supports. It’s why issues matter in a special election. ‘I had no idea [at the campaign’s start] that the Ryan budget would be in play,’ said [a] Democrat close to the campaign. ‘But it’s in play.’ ” 

Ryan’s budget is not the only thing in play.

So’s the seat.

A late April Public Policy Polling survey had Hochul opening up a 35 percent to 31 percent lead over Corwin. A third candidate, businessman Jack Davis, who is running an independent campaign based on Tea Party movement themes, was pulling 24 percent of the vote, while Green Ian Murphy was at 2 percent.

Public Policy Polling is a Democratic-leaning firm. But ensuing polls by other firms and media outlets confirmed the pattern that developed after the Democrat made Ryan’s budget a central issue. 

That brought in the elite Republican guard, with party leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner rushing to campaign for Corwin, and veteran party operatives such as former White House political czar Karl Rove flooding the district with corporate cash in the form of so-called “independent expenditures” on the GOP nominee’s behalf. Rove’s American Crossroads organization has spent $650,000 in a matter of days in an attempt to save Corwin—and Ryan.

The race has gotten rough, with Rove and his pals attacking Hochul on every issue from immigration to taxes.

But Hochul is not backing away from the position that has moved her into serious competition. 

The Democrat, a popular county clerk with deep roots in the region, is airing new television commercials that highlight the fact that Corwin (and Davis) would “cut benefits for seniors while cutting taxes for the wealthy.” 

Hochul promises to “fight the Republican budget that aims to decimate Medicare and any Republican efforts to privatize Social Security.”

“I will stop at nothing,” she says, “to protect the guarantees we’ve made to our seniors over the last seventy-six years.”

If that proves to be a winning message—in fact, if it brings Hochul anywhere near victory in an overwhelmingly Republican district—the results should shake official Washington. Republicans, who are already in the process of abandoning Ryan’s plan, will jettison it. Democrats, who have struggled to get their footing since the 2010 election debacle, will have their issue in dozens of competitive contests with Republicans House members (mostly freshmen) who backed the Ryan plan. Arguments for a new politics that defends public services, public education and public welfare programs at the local, state and national levels will grow stronger. So, too, will the argument that the place to begin balancing budgets is by making billionaires and multinational corporations pay their fair share—not by attacking Medicare, Medicare and Social Security.

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