When Rep. Chris Lee (R) resigned in disgrace in February, few expected his seat to change party hands. His Buffalo-area district has been represented by Republicans for a long while, and national Democrats didn’t expect the special election to replace Lee to be competitive at all.

In March, the New York GOP rallied behind Jane Corwin, a well-liked state assemblywoman, and the race in the 26th congressional district appeared to be largely over.

Democrat Kathy Hochul then started talking about the House Republican budget agenda — most notably its plan to end Medicare — and the fact that Corwin endorsed it. And as it turns out, that quickly and radically changed the race from a no-brainer GOP win to a competitive race that’s seen $2.2 million in outside money pumped into the district.

As of the latest polls, Hochul appears to be positioned to win, and Republican officials in D.C. and New York are pessimistic. Indeed, yesterday, we saw the pre-emptive spin phase begin, with GOP officials hoping to convince everyone that a defeat doesn’t really matter.

At his weekly briefing with reporters today, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was asked whether a Republican defeat in New York’s 26th district tomorrow — still a possibility, not a certainty — would be a vote against the Ryan plan for Medicare.

“No,” said Cantor. “Not at all. This race is about the fact that it’s a three-way race.”

He explained how things had gotten to this point — how the very effective Jane Corwin candidacy had been tripped up by the Jack Davis campaign — and then went further.

“I know this town loves to take signals from individual races,” he said.

Right. When Scott Brown wins a special election in Massachusetts, it’s an important signal from an individual race. When a Republican struggles in a “red” district in Buffalo, it’s a reminder that there are no important signals to be taken from individual races.

Likewise, Karl Rove’s attack operation, American Crossroads, has invested heavily in boosting the Corwin campaign — by some estimates, the group has spent $700,000 in just the last few weeks — and is now making excuses for the Hochul victory that hasn’t happened. I guess American Crossroads isn’t optimistic, either.

It’s worth noting that the election is today, and it’s certainly possible the Republican will pull out a victory here. Democrats seem delighted the race is even close at all, and already see this as a moral victory, no matter what the outcome is. Indeed, as far as Dems are concerned, win or lose, the 26th shows how poisonous the GOP’s Medicare plan is, and offers a roadmap the party will follow in 2012.

But I’ll be especially interested to see how the Republican spin shifts if Corwin ends up on top. I suspect the message will be, “Never mind all that stuff we said yesterday. This is a huge win that sends a powerful signal.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.