Back in April, a little special election in Wisconsin became a proxy war for Republicans' and Democrats' fight over union power. Now next week's special election to Rep. Chris Lee has become a proxy war over Medicare. The race, in one of New York's most conservative districts, has become surprisingly competitive as Democrat Kathy Hochul hammers Republican Jane Corwin over Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul entitlements, and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis takes votes from Corwin. Outside groups, like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into ad campaigns in the district, and an army of Republican Capitol Hill staffers are headed upstate to get out the vote, Roll Call's Steve Peoples reports.

The Washington Post's Philip Rucker writes that the race is "the formula Democrats plan to use next year, when Republicans will face voters for the first time after backing" the Ryan plan. "Thus, what happens here ahead of the May 24 election will set the terms for both parties' campaign playbooks heading into the 2012 battle for control of the House and Senate."

Stu Rotherberg now rates the race as tilting Democratic. He notes that conservative attacks have cost Davis support, but his supporters are not flocking to Corwin, "raising new doubts about the Republican's ability to grow her support in the final week." He adds that Hochul's Medicare attacks "apparently have made it difficult for Corwin to attract disaffected Davis voters." The New Republic's Jonathan Chait finds it significant that "Jack Davis's support is dropping, yet Jane Corwin still seems to be trailing. ...  If Kathy Hochul can win in this heavily Republican district without a huge third-party boost, that's a hugely auspicious sign for Democrats."

But Charlie Cook says everyone should take a deep breath. "I take a perverse pleasure in watching a multitude of well-intentioned political observers weigh in on the 'great significance' of this upstate..." he writes. The race doesn't say anything about Medicare, because of Davis, a self-funded candidate. Cook continues:

For those who live outside the boundaries of the 26th District, the significance is this: If Democrats capture the seat, they will need a net gain of 24 seats to capture a majority and if Republicans hold the seat, Democrats will still need 25 seats. That’s it. Any grander conclusions are specious. ...

If anyone can find a race next year with a similar configuration, be my guest and apply the 'lessons learned' from this race to that one. But implying that the outcome of this race portends anything about any conventional race next year amounts to cheap spin and drive-by 'analysis' of the most superficial kind...


Slate's Dave Weigel, who just arrived in New York, responds, "Well, I'm not pretending other races will look like this one. It's a special election!" Still, he writes, "is it as easy to imagine a toss-up if Republicans were riding high and not struggling to explain and defend their Medicare plan?"