Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.
(CNN) -- This week, voters in New York's 26th Congressional District will go to the ballot box to replace Rep. Christopher Lee, who resigned after a scandal involving a photo of himself shirtless that he sent to a woman he met online.
Like other special elections in the last two years, the rumble in the 26th has drawn the attention and resources of both national political parties. What would have ordinarily been a local race is seen as having big implications for 2012.
Until April, few Democrats thought this race was worth contesting. The 26th is one of the most conservative districts in New York, presumably a safe Republican seat. But then something happened. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin released his budget plan, which included a drastic overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid. Many of his GOP colleagues, fearing trouble on the campaign trail, distanced themselves from the plan as soon as the details were released.
In New York, Democrats pounced. The party has been able to generate substantial support for its candidate, Kathy Hochul, by connecting the dots between New York, Washington, and Wisconsin. Her ads have hammered away at her Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, for endorsing Ryan's proposal and supporting "a budget that essentially ends Medicare." She also supports, they add, reductions in Social Security benefits.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has responded with a familiar refrain, calling Hochul a champion of the kind of big government liberalism that it says has run rampant in Washington. A recent television spot argued that Hochul, as well as independent Jack Davis, was on the same page as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The race is allowing both parties to test their arguments for 2012. Republicans are counting on Americans to share the party's antipathy to the federal government and support proposals to lower the federal deficit. This anti-government ethos has been a guiding ideal for GOP candidates since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Even though in practice Republicans have usually grown government, including domestic programs such as Medicare, the negative rhetoric about Washington has remained a staple, and it has often been extremely effective in campaigns. The key has been to keep the debate abstract, focused on government rather than on programs.
In the other corner, Democrats are counting on a different strand of public opinion. Since the 1960s, Americans have told pollsters that they actually like big government -- specifically, certain government policies and programs like Medicare, which is broadly popular. This has been an Achilles' heel for Republicans. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson devastated the Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater by exposing what his conservative philosophy actually meant. One advertisement depicted two hands tearing up a Social Security card.
When Ronald Reagan tried to cut Social Security benefits in 1981, House Democrats mounted a bruising campaign against the plan and he had to back off. President George W. Bush saw his political capital evaporate into thin air when he pushed for a plan to privatize Social Security after the 2004 election. Even more recently, Republicans have discovered that Americans support many specific components of President Obama's health care law -- and are reluctant to retrench those benefits -- despite continued skepticism about the overall program.
Revealingly, as they did during the legislative debate over passing the health care law, Republicans in the 26th District are warning that the Democrats support cuts to Medicare. In other words, the anti-government warriors are defending a huge social program.
To be sure, special elections are still deeply influenced by local concerns and the particularities of each candidate. But the enormous resources that the parties have poured into these races, revolving around messages that in turn revolve around national debates, has helped to nationalize this election.
The results in the special election may help the parties determine what their strategy should be in the 2012 elections. If Hochul wins, we can expect Democrats to focus on specifics in the upcoming months, telling voters what Democrats' programs provide them and what Republicans hope to take away.
If Republicans can hold this seat, they may be emboldened to continue calling for radical cuts in the federal budget and warning of the dangerous road on which Democrats have embarked. Which argument sticks in this special election will give both parties some sense of where voters stand after the heated budget battles of the past few months.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.