Oh ye Republicans who voted for Paul Ryan's budget, take heed! The Associated Press and the Washington Post (not to mention Chuck Schumer, Steve Israel, and the rest of the Democratic party) have prophesied that the Medicare reform apocalypse shall commence at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, when the polls close in the NY-26 special election.

You see, today's special election in western New York is no typical election. It's actually a "referendum" on the House Republicans' Medicare reform, according to the AP, WaPo, and Democratic politicians. If voters elect Democrat Kathy Hochul this evening, they won't merely be rejecting Republican Jane Corwin, they'll really be casting Ryan's Medicare reform into the pit of hell. Presumably, the traditional and unsustainable Medicare program will be assumed into a specially sacred place in heaven.

And if Corwin pulls off a win? It still means voters hate the GOP Medicare reform. "Win or lose, tomorrow night's result in NY-26 will be devastating to Ryan Medicare Phase Out plan," according to Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.

Of course, not everyone is trying to divine such grand significance from this special election. "[I]mplying 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, which is sadly becoming all too prevalent in Washington," wrote elections analyst Charlie Cook.

Indeed, there are many peculiarities about this race that make it difficult to discern how the Medicare issue is playing.

First, the seat opened up when it was revealed that married Republican congressman Chris Lee was allegedly trawling Craigslist for sex with transgender women. Lee's scandal probably didn't help the GOP brand in NY-26.

Second, Republicans are divided. The GOP chairmen selected Corwin over conservative David Bellavia, and Bellavia responded by hammering Corwin in the press for her pro-choice position on abortion. He attempted to secure the Conservative party line on the ballot. After that attempt failed, Bellavia endorsed third party "Tea Party" candidate Jack Davis.

Bellavia isn't a nobody. He is a decorated Iraq war combat veteran who appeared in former GOP congressman Tom Reynolds's campaign commercial (ironically, the commercials featured Bellavia attacking Davis, then running as a Democrat, for not supporting the troops). "Tea Party" candidate Jack Davis has spent millions of dollars on the race and has focused his message on protectionism.

Third, Republicans lost special elections in PA-12 and NY-23--working class districts that are similar to NY-26--and went on to make historic gains in the 2010 mid-term elections. NY-26 is slightly more Republican than those other districts (52% of voters backed McCain, compared to 49% in PA-12 and 47% in NY-23). Republicans were divided, to varying degrees, in PA-12 and NY-23, but neither election was precipitated by a GOP sex scandal.

Medicare reform is probably having some impact on the NY-26 race--it is the Democrats' main line of attack--but it's difficult to determine what exactly that impact is. According to the latest Siena poll, Democrat Kathy Hochul is overwhelmingly winning among the 21 percent of voters who say Medicare is their top issue. The breakdown: 9% for Corwin, 38% for Hochul, 8% for Davis. (Corwin is winning among the 19 percent of voters who say the federal deficit is their top issue, but Tea Partier Davis is cutting into her margin: 30% of these voters back Corwin, while 9% back Hochul and 21% back Davis.)

"What’s tricky about this," writes liberal polling analyst Nate Silver at the New York Times, "is that it isn’t straightforward to determine whether voters are prepared to vote for Ms. Hochul because of the Medicare issue — or rather, whether they were going to vote for her for some other reason, but emphasize Medicare to pollsters because she has also. Correlation may not equal causation." Silver goes on to argue that there's some indication the Medicare issue is helping Corwin at the margins among indpendents.

So is Medicare helping Hochul? Maybe. Of course, Hochul isn't merely demagoguing Ryan's Medicare reform, she opposes Obama's cuts to Medicare, too. Not many Democrats will be able to do that in 2012, and Republicans will be able to attack them for rationing care.

Republicans voted for Medicare reform knowing it could hurt them politically. But there are simply too many unusual factors in this NY-26 to know how the specific issue of the Ryan premium-support plan is playing. Yes, that's also true if Corwin pulls of a victory. Win or lose in NY-26, the debate over Medicare has really just begun.

Update: This post has been updated to correct the time at which polls close tonight.

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