Democrat Kathy Hochul’s victory in NY-26 last night shows the impact of a tremendous House GOP overreach, one that could easily cost them control of the chamber next year.

The fact that third-party candidate Jack Davis only took 9% of the vote, and yet Hochul still was able to win comfortably, shows that he was less of a factor than at first assumed. Republicans trying to comfort themselves with the fact that Hochul only took 47-48% of the vote, no different than Democrats in 2006 in the district, don’t seem to be recognizing that in 2006, Democrats took 31 seats in the House. They only need 24 now to regain control.

As David Nir reports, Hochul was also severely underfunded in this race:

The GOP spent an absolute fortune on this race. Not counting outside money, Corwin alone spent about $2.6 million of her own money to get about 40,000 votes. That comes out to $68/vote. By contrast, Meg Whitman spent approximately $144 million out of her own pocket — a record — to net about 4 million votes in last year’s gubernatorial race in California. That comes out to roughly $35/vote. Kathy Hochul raised very well, but she was most certainly outspent.

As for outside money, the main spenders for Corwin were $700K by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, $100K by the American Action Network, and $425K by the NRCC (totaling about $1.2 million). For Hochul, it wound up as $371K from the House Majority PAC, $111K from the Communications Workers of America, $75K from 1199 SEIU 1199, and $267K from the DCCC (totalling $824K). Hochul herself raised around a million bucks.

Hochul won this race because she did what good politicians do – find their opponent’s vulnerability and focus on it relentlessly until Election Day. After running initial ads about denying driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, Hochul switched gears and made the entire race about Medicare, and she had a winning message for that issue. Corwin, trapped by the conservative base, could never talk her way out of the hole Paul Ryan dug for her.

By all rights, this should make Medicare the definitive issue of the 2012 election, and should take any Medicare cuts completely off the table as a policy matter. Unlike Corwin, who merely endorsed it, 235 House members actually voted for the Ryan budget that ends Medicare and replaces it with a coupon for seniors to purchase expensive health insurance. Why you would put them at risk for a plan that will never happen is beyond me. If you’re going to ruin the careers of much of your party and possibly lose control of one branch of Congress in the process, the least you can do is actually enact the policy that causes it!

With some exceptions, Democrats have ranged from reluctant defenders of government spending to outright hawkish assailants of social funds. But nothing focuses the mind like political calculation, and the upset in upstate New York has sent a message so clear that not even the highest priced Democratic consultant could miss it.

“Kathy Hochul’s victory tonight is a tribute to Democrats’ commitment to preserve and strengthen Medicare, create jobs and grow our economy. And it sends a clear message that will echo nationwide: Republicans will be held accountable for their vote to end Medicare,” Pelosi said in a statement after the election.

The DNC jumped on this in their statement as well, with new chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz saying that the victory “demonstrates that Republicans and Independent voters, along with Democrats, will reject extreme policies like ending Medicare that even Newt Gingrich called radical … Kathy’s Republican opponent, and those who spent a small fortune on her behalf in a solidly Republican district, found out the hard way that their extreme plans to abolish Medicare and slash Medicaid and investments in health care, education, innovation and job creation are wrongheaded and unpopular even in a district that should have been a cakewalk for the Republican candidate.”

This is the perfect week for Democrats in the Senate to force Republicans to join their House colleagues in a moment-of-truth vote on the Ryan budget. We’re already seeing several Republican Senators come out opposed to the plan, and that was before last night’s results.

But despite all the exultations and all the good political fortune for Democrats over the past six months, one political leader didn’t reference Medicare in his congratulations for Hochul. That was President Obama, who instead proclaimed that Hochul would assist in the fight to “create jobs, grow our economy, and reduce the deficit in order to outcompete other nations and win the future.” Of course, that’s Obama’s message, not hers. Given the evidence of last night, it would be unthinkable for the White House to look the gift horse of the Ryan budget in the mouth and cut a deal on Medicare, or institute some other deficit reduction plan to get the Republicans off the hook. It would be even more unthinkable for Democrats to go along with it. But as we’ll note in a later post, despite this strong admonition from the public, some strange winds are blowing in Washington.

David Dayen

David Dayen