The Main Event: NY 20 Seen As Barometer On Obama Policies

The political media, us included, have a tendency to get rather hysterical about special congressional elections — reading more into the results than is probably warranted.

Sometimes it's justified. Back in early 1974, amid Republican nervousness about the mounting scandal called Watergate, there were special elections held in Pennsylvania, Ohio and two in Michigan to replace departed GOP incumbents. Democrats won all four: John Murtha in the Keystone State, Tom Luken in Ohio and Bob Traxler and Richard Vander Veen in Michigan.

The fact that those four names still stick with me is an indication of how meaningful those special elections were, how it portended the disaster that 1974 was going to become for the Republicans.

Other times, special elections are just momentary blips. But for some reason, we in the political world often don't hesitate to give them extraordinary attention, far more than they deserve.

So, what to make of today's contest in New York's 20th District, to replace Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who was plucked out of the House by Gov. David Paterson to succeed now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Senate?

Well, we know that both parties are pouring in a ton of money, with Republican Jim Tedisco, the state Assembly minority leader, probably spending more than his Democratic opponent, venture capitalist Scott Murphy. Republicans have been on a losing streak since 2006 not only nationally but especially in New York, where they hold just three of the state's 29 congressional seats — their fewest in history. They want this one, badly.

Of course, one win doesn't necessarily mean the party is on the road to recovery, but it certainly would boost morale.

A Siena College poll released late last week has Murphy, a first-time candidate, up 4 points over Tedisco (margin of error: 3.2 percentage points). That continues a trend toward the Democrat, who trailed Tedisco in the same poll in March by 4 percentage points, and by 12 points in February. Both candidates have gone negative in the waning hours of the race, and that has been reflected in their growing unfavorable numbers. Tedisco, who is far better known, has perhaps suffered more by the back-and-forth nastiness. (The current Siena poll also showed 27 percent of Republicans preferring Murphy, compared with 11 percent of Democrats favoring Tedisco.)

Until Gillibrand ousted GOP Rep. John Sweeney in 2006, this was seen as a comfortable Republican bastion. And by the numbers, it still is — there are some 70,000 more Republicans in the 20th. George W. Bush won it both times he ran. But in 2008, Barack Obama carried it with 51 percent of the vote, and Gillibrand won a landslide re-election against a well-financed opponent. The mostly rural district may be socially conservative, but the president remains highly popular.

Both sides seem willing to portray the results as a referendum on the Obama economic policies. Murphy, who received the president's endorsement last week, has backed the Obama stimulus plan from the outset. It has taken Tedisco the better part of the campaign to finally say that he would have voted against it, and the Democrats hammered him on that. But with the populist outrage over the AIG bonuses a part of the stimulus package, Tedisco is hoping to benefit.

Polls close at 9 p.m. ET. Check out my Twitter feeds throughout the evening for updates.

Meanwhile, some recommended good reads on N.Y. 20:

Charlie Cook:

Pollsters of all stripes agreed that Tedisco began the race with a considerable double digit lead, and now agree it is neck and neck. Insiders, however, differ on how the race got to be this close. Some say that Tedisco and Republicans have run a flawed campaign, and others contend the marginal nature of the Hudson River valley district has simply asserted itself. There's some truth to both theories. ...

In Vegas, today's line is probably Tedisco by three points, but the outcome will only tell us something about voters' attitudes towards the stimulus if one side wins by a substantial margin. Otherwise, it's best to read national surveys with caution.

The Albany Times-Union's "Capitol Confidential" blog:

For those who are hoping to avoid a late night, better hope that the 20th Congressional race has at least a good 6,000 vote margin.

As of yesterday [Monday], there were 5,907 absentee ballots received by the state Board of Elections, according to spokesman Bob Brehm.

Roll Call's Josh Kurtz:

The race ... has in some ways been over-hyped. But perhaps that was inevitable.

Take the first competitive contest of the new election cycle, mix in new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's vow that this will be the place where the GOP begins its resurgence, add Murphy's emphasis on the stimulus, and voila! — there's a recipe for pundits to read an awful lot into the outcome.

But in the end, the race to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who flipped the district into the Democratic column in 2006 after years of Republican dominance, is still just a special election. Turnout will be miniscule, meaning in the end the winner will be the person who pulled his voters to the polls, rather than the harbinger of any mighty trend.

Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg:

Is the special election in New York's 20th district a referendum on the national political environment — on President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C.'s handling of the American International Group bonus scandal, the economic stimulus package and the national reputations of the two parties? Or, rather, is it about the skills and appeal of the two candidates?

It's about both.

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