NEW YORK (AFP) – For want of a shirt, an election may be lost.
That at least might be the mournful refrain heard from Republicans in western New York, where a reliably conservative district is very much in play on Tuesday for the opposition Democrats.
The district is holding a special election to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of Chris Lee, a married congressman who resigned from the US House of Representatives in February after posting photos of himself shirtless to a woman online.
That scandal has put Republicans on a back-foot in a district which they should win handily in normal times.
But pundits say more than the sex scandal, the once-safe Republican seat has been put at risk because of a voter backlash over the party’s plan to overhaul the Medicare health program for elderly Americans.
With polls in their favor, Democrats view the contest as a chance to turn the race into a referendum on the House Republican agenda, as they prepare to battle for control of the House in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections.
The contest pits Republican Jane Corwin — a state legislator who has backed an unpopular budget bill approved by the vast majority of party members in the US House — against Democrat Kathy Hochul Hochul, an attorney and local county clerk, who opposes the Republican plan.
The district, a staunchly conservative swath of western New York state that includes parts of the cities of Buffalo and nearby Rochester, was one of only four in the state where Republican John McCain defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 White House race.
In a typical campaign year, the election would have been a lost cause for a Democratic party hopeful, since the House seat has been held almost exclusively by Republicans for decades.
But the special election for Lee’s old seat appears to hinge on the voters’ largely negative reaction to the Republican plans to trim the US budget deficit by cutting benefits in Medicare, a popular health care program.
On the eve of the vote, Hochul was holding a four-point lead over Corwin, according to a Siena College Research Institute poll, which gave the Democrat a 42 percent to 38 percent edge in the race.
A third contender, independent candidate Jack Davis, is the choice of about 12 percent of the electorate, the Siena poll found.
“It is an important national bellwether,” Don Levy, the director of the Siena Research Institute, said of the race.
“If the Democrats win, then they can say that in a traditionally Republican district, concerns over Medicare tipped the scales for the Democratic candidate,” he said.
“It is understandable then that this race matters so much to Republicans throughout the country.”
The seat would not have come up at all if not for Lee’s resignation, although it is not clear if he could have held onto the seat anyway had he voted with his party for the Medicare cuts.
The elderly in the United States are the most stalwart bloc of US voters, with a weight at the polls disproportionate their numbers, and elderly voters are fiercely protective of entitlement programs like Medicare and the Social Security pension payment system.
The race has unnerved some Republicans in Washington, who fear it augurs a difficult campaign season ahead of the November 2012 elections. Voters will choose a president and one-third of the US Senate at the same time.
All but four of the 239 of the Republicans in the House voted last month for the Medicare overhaul which was part of a budget plan proposed by US lawmaker Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
No House Democrats meanwhile, voted for the measure, and pundits said they appear to have made the right political calculation.
Early on, Corwin led both of her opponents, but polls have showed her support slipping steadily over time — especially among critically important independent voters and and elderly voters who, according to the Siena poll, are driven largely by the Medicare issue.
Tinkering with Social Security in particular is so fraught with peril that it often is referred to as the “third rail” of US politics, and deemed by many to be best left untouched.