Fifteen days ago, I foreshadowed the symbolic importance of the special congressional election that is being staged today in upstate New York. I wrote that the fight to fill a vacated House seat in the predominantly Republican Hudson Valley was shaping up as "one of the few key contests on the '09 calendar, a proxy war for the Washington warriors," and, given all the ensuing developments, there's no reason to think otherwise.
Each party is looking for a psychological edge. The results of this fevered race to fill the slot vacated by now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will be spun tomorrow as either a thumbs-down verdict on President Obama (if GOP candidate Jim Tedisco wins), or yet another voter repudiation of the national GOP (if Democratic candidate Scott Murphy wins).
In all likelihood, thousands of voters in the heavily rural 20th congressional district are probably most interested in choosing the candidate who would do the most for dairy farmers. But the national parties and the special interest groups haven't poured well over $2 million into this race to talk about dairy farmers and other matters deemed parochial by the strategists in Washington. Their aim is to emerge from this race with a triumphant message. One side probably will.
Democrat Murphy has basically championed Obama's stimulus package, praising the "shovel-ready" programs that could create jobs in upstate New York; so maybe this race will be a favorable referendum on Obama's agenda. Republican Tedisco has tried to ride the anti-populist outrage generated by the AIG bonuses, and has pointed out that the bonuses were enabled by a loophole in the stimulus bill; so maybe this race is a populist referendum on Democratic failure to reign in Wall Street excess. Or maybe it's a perceived referendum on Republican national chairman Michael Steele, who badly needs a win somewhere (especially in the heavily Democratic Northeast) and who has invested heavily in this contest.
Actually, the fact that this race is a nail-biter (at least according to the polls) is proof in itself that the Republicans are in a bad way. Democrat Murphy has never run for office before. He is also a veritable stranger to the district, having moved there from Missouri only three years ago. He is, by trade, a venture capitalist - at a time when venture capitalists are widely met with the scorn usually reserved for used car salesmen. So he is a newbie, carpetbagging venture capitalist. Actually, he is a newbie, carpetbagging venture capitalists who says he opposes the death penalty even for terrorists - this, in a congressional district located barely 90 minutes by car from Ground Zero. A district with a 70,000 Republican edge in voter registration. A district (reconfigured as a rural enclave in the early '90s) that elected a Republican to Congress in every race from 1992 to 2004, turning to Democrat Gillibrand in 2006 only because of the general anti-GOP wave and because the incumbent Republican had been hit with a domestic violence complaint.
And yet...Democrat Murphy now leads Republican Tedisco in the final Siena Research Institute poll by four percentage points, after trailing Tedisco by 12 points as recently as February. That's a 16-point swing in roughly six weeks. How to explain that?
Pick a plausible theory: Obama, who endorsed Murphy in a low-key emailing last week, is currently popular in this district, getting a thumbs up from 65 percent of all those surveyed; even 49 percent of local Republicans approve of him. And Tedisco is arguably hurt by the fact that he's the top-ranked Republican in the state legislature, a 26-year Assembly veteran; in these parts, the term "career Albany politician" is not one of endearment. For many weeks, Tedisco also looked like a waffler, refusing to take a position on the Obama stimulus bill. When he finally came out against it, he called it "Washington-style, Mickey-Mouse pork-barrel politics at its worst." But when a local reporter asked him to detail what he considered to be pork, he denied ever having used the term. ("Have you ever heard me use the term pork?")
It seems as if everyone has either trekked to the district, sent money, or messaged from afar. Gillibrand has returned to stump for Murphy, Steele has shown up, House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor have surfaced with Tedisco, the Service Employes International Union has pumped in six figures for Murphy, Joe Biden has cut a radio ad for Murphy, Bill Clinton has raised money for Murphy, 80 House Republicans have sent money to Tedisco, Murphy has just sent out a mailer seeking to link Tedisco to Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin...you get the idea. Both sides badly want to win the right to spin a win.
And here's a rough guide to the morning messaging:
If Republican Tedisco wins (which, on paper, he absolutely should), his party will probably say: Republicans, with this resounding victory, are on the comeback trail, and President Obama has suffered a stunning rebuke. In the election last fall, Obama actually won the 20th congressional district, but it's clear that his overreach has already soured voters on his liberal agenda.
If Tedisco wins, the Democrats will probably say: We never expected to win this race. There are 70,000 more Republicans than Democrats in that district, it has generally been a reliable Republican House seat for many decades, and we never intended to match the Washington GOP's million-dollar investment in that campaign. The outcome of this race decreases our strong House majority from 77 seats to 76, and we look forward to further success with President Obama's plan to put America on the road to recovery.
On the other hand, if Democrat Murphy wins, his party will probably say: It has been clear all along that the voters of this district were yearning for change. They supported President Obama in the election, and we are not surprised that they have now continued to do so by sending the president's candidate, Scott Murphy, to Congress. This election result, in a heavily Republican district, and despite all the money expended by the Republican party, is a resounding endorsement of the president's agenda.
And if Democrat Murphy wins, the Republicans will probably say:
As little as possible. Because if they can't beat a venture capitalist rookie candidate in this kind of district, where can they win?
As GOP consultant Phil Musser reportedly acknowledged yesterday, a Republican defeat "could change the psyche of the Republican party. (We) have put a lot of time and energy into winning it. (Defeat) would be more of a psychological setback than anything else." As if they need another one.