In the NY-26 special election, Democrat Kathy Hochul managed to win a plurality victory despite the Republican leanings of the district. From a balance-of-power perspective, change in control of this one seat in itself should not have much impact on policy. Before the election, Republicans had a large but not veto-proof majority in the House, and, as of today, they still have a large majority in the House.
This single fairly unimportant special election a year-and-a-half from the next general election is likely going to be a very poor predictor. A lot can change in a year. After all, Democrats did very well in most Congressional elections in 2009, but still lost big in November of 2010.
While it is true that Hochul did as well as the 2006 Democratic candidate, and that could indicate things have turned around for Democrats, and/or that Hochul’s attacks on the Republican plan to privatize Medicare hit home, the candidates involved are often a big factor in a special election. With nothing else on the ballot and very little at stake, a candidate can’t count on votes from weak supporters who turned out to vote in other big races on the ballot at the same time. It is possible the win was mainly because Hochul is just a good campaigner and Republican Jane Corwin is really bad at it.
With almost no predictive power and no effect on the balance of control in Congress, this victory will only affect our government if most people assign a shared meaning to it.
Importantly, based on some evidence (PDF), most Democrats, progressives, and reporters have come to the conclusion this election does carry a greater meaning: It shows voters are rejecting Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan. Whether it actually was the major factor or only one of many factors in the win is unimportant now that opinion among a huge group of influential people has coalesced around belief that it has “proven” to be a big electoral problem for the GOP. Behavior and strategy will change as a result of the belief itself.
This belief could heavily influence policy by changing budget negotiations going on right now in Congress and have a major affect on politics, encouraging Democrats to invest hundreds of millions into Medicare-focused campaign ads.
The NY-26 special election will only prove to be significant if enough important people believe it was significant.