The future of Medicare is one of the biggest, most fiercely contested questions in American politics these days. And with a special election coming up in a congressional district in western New York next week, the candidates there have spent a lot of time debating a Republican plan that would transform the federal health care program. So is the election there a referendum on a GOP proposal? The Washington Post and USA Today would have you believe that it is — but there are good reasons to be wary of the hype.

The campaign is attracting attention because polls suggest the Democratic nominee, Kathy Hochul, has a chance to win the seat in what is normally a heavily Republican district. (The local billionaire and Tea Party favorite Carl Paladino won 61 percent of the vote in the district during his campaign for governor last fall, while garnering only 34 percent statewide.) Hochul’s strong showing—she either leads or trails the Republican nominee, Jane Corwin, by a few points, depending on which poll you look at—comes as her opponent has endorsed the House Republicans’ plan to radically remake Medicare, turning it into a system of vouchers to be used on the private market. Democrats, unsurprisingly, are working hard to draw a connection between the two. The “referendum” line seems to be pushed most aggressively by Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator and message coordinator who was stumping for Hochul over the weekend.

Partisan interests aside, the adoption of the referendum meme here fits a pattern in which the press soberly acknowledges that while most special elections are obscure or idiosyncratic, but the next one on the calendar just happens to be full of broader portent and national meaning. (Remember how Scott Brown’s win was the death knell for health care reform?) Often, these claims don’t hold up to scrutiny, and a closer look suggests that whatever is happening here, Hochul is probably not benefiting much from Republican defections. Indeed, as the write-up of a Siena College poll cited by the Post story notes, her support basically matches Democratic registrations in the district. Hochul is a Democrat who’s advancing Democratic positions on the key issues of the moment, and she’s attracting about as much support as Democrats in the district normally do.

So why is she staying competitive? Because Jack Davis, a self-funded independent campaigning on the Tea Party line, is running a strong third, mostly by siphoning support from disaffected and conservative voters who would otherwise lean to the GOP. Democrats have already poached one unlikely win in upstate New York this way, as David Nir recently noted for Daily Kos, and they’ll be delighted if they can turn the trick again. If this campaign represents “the formula Democrats plan to use next year,” as the Post asserts, the party apparently plans to recruit a lot of rich gadflies to split the conservative vote. But while Davis’s presence as a spoiler seems to explain much of what’s happening here, the Post article doesn’t explore his role until about halfway through, well after the “referendum” framework is established, and the USA Today post doesn’t even explain that his gains likely come at Corwin’s expense.

A few caveats are in order. Corwin’s support for radical changes to Medicare may help explain why some conservatives favor Davis. According to the Post story, the Tea Party candidate “said he would have voted against [the House Republican] budget because he wanted deeper spending cuts and does not support overhauling Medicare.” While that’s more or less impossible—the GOP proposal already cuts discretionary spending to the bone over the medium term—it seems clearly designed to appeal to voters who see themselves as fiscal conservatives but want their own entitlements protected. It’s possible that, were Davis not in the race, those voters would be siding with Hochul. And it’s also possible that the Republican plan for Medicare, which is generally unpopular, will weigh down the party in 2012 by prompting some right-leaning voters to stay home or even switch sides.

But based on the available evidence, there’s little reason to think of the close campaign in this special election as heralding an issue-driven realignment, and more reason to think of it as the outcome of an unusual mix of candidates. That’s a point worth keeping in mind when the results come in and the referendum talk picks up again, no matter who wins.

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.