Both Sides Claim Win In N.Y. Race

The first federal election of the Obama era was held Tuesday in a congressional district in upstate New York and the winner was not determined. Fewer than 100 votes separate the two candidates, but that hasn't stopped both parties from claiming victory.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Yesterday marked the first special congressional election of the Obama era. Voters went to the polls in an upstate New York district held most recently by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. The results are still too close to call. Democrat Scott Murphy leads Republican Jim Tedisco by - get this - about 25 votes. And there are more than 6,000 absentee and military ballots still to be counted. NPR's National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Special elections are sometimes harvengers of a new trend, or at least that's what the winning side likes to argue. In the 20th district of New York, Democrats are poised to claim a win as an endorsement of President Obama's economic policies. Republicans are ready to argue that a win for them would mean their national political fortunes have finally found a bottom.

Reversing those fortunes posed a problem for the GOP candidate Jim Tedisco, who found himself searching for the right way for a pro-business Republican to attack a Democratic opponent who's also a rich venture capitalist. Here's how he started out.

Mr. JIM TEDISCO (Republican, New York Congressional Candidate): They picked a multimillionaire, and just let me make a point about that, I did not spend my entire life making a lot of money, or trying to make a lot of money or becoming a millionaire.

LIASSON: But by the time the AIG bonus story broke, Tedisco had adopted a full-throated populist message as in this television ad.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: America is outraged about 165 million in bonuses paid to AIG executives after taxpayers bailed them out. Like AIG, Scott Murphy gave huge bonuses to executives in a company losing millions.

LIASSON: The National Republican Party spent heavily on this race hoping to reclaim what had once been a GOP stronghold. President Obama weighed in, but did not campaign in the district, spending just enough political capital so as not to be blamed if Murphy lost. The president endorsed Murphy in an email, and the Democratic National Committee ran this ad.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man: In the worst recession in a generation, upstate New Yorkers deserve someone with the right skills to represent them in Washington. That's why President Obama is supporting Scott Murphy for Congress.

LIASSON: Yesterday, onboard Air Force One, the president's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, was busy lowering expectations.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): You know, this is a district that has a sizeable Republican voter registration advantage. So regardless of the outcome, to even be competitive in a district like that, I think demonstrates quite a bit.

LIASSON: At least that's the White House line. There are 70,000 more Republicans than Democrats registered in the district, but the district's been represented by a Democrat since 2006 and had voted for candidate Obama in 2008. Given all that, it's hard to see how either party will get much in the way of bragging rights here, or evidence about the national political direction when the winner is finally announced in a couple of weeks.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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