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Just Round One

It's easy to give the outcome of a special election too much weight -- but looking for a pattern is more useful.

Before voters went to the polls on Tuesday in New York's 20th Congressional District, there seemed to be compelling arguments in favor of either major party winning the race to fill the House seat formerly held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate. Those arguments seemed to cancel each other out, so in my CongressDaily column on Tuesday morning, I predicted a very close election.

The outcome could not be much closer. At press time, 39-year-old venture capitalist Scott Murphy, the Democrat, held a 65-vote lead over 58-year-old state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, the Republican, 77,344 to 77,279.


Even though N.Y.-20 has not returned to its Republican roots, it also did not vote as strongly Democratic as it did in up-ballot races of 2006 and 2008.

That tally does not include absentee ballots; 10,055 were apparently issued and 5,907 were returned by Election Day. Military and overseas ballots postmarked before Election Day will be accepted until April 13, while other properly postmarked absentee ballots must be received by April 7.

My Tuesday column argued that this contest would take on real significance only if one party won big, likely indicating great enthusiasm on one side, lethargy on the other, or both. As it turns out, even though neither party scored a landslide, both sides seemed energetic: The race attracted the highest number of voters of any stand-alone special election for the House in more than a decade.


Tedisco is a lifelong resident of the area (if not technically the 20th District) and has held elective office for 27 years, making him the known quantity. He came under fire during the campaign for refusing to say how he would have voted on President Obama's economic stimulus package, suggesting that it was a hypothetical question. Tedisco finally voiced opposition, shortly before news broke that the package had allowed millions of dollars in bonuses for executives of American International Group.

Murphy, a native of Missouri, was active in state Democratic politics there before moving to upstate New York, where his wife's family has deep roots. Third-party conservative groups attacked Murphy by suggesting that his companies outsourced jobs to India. He retorted that the savings were reinvested in businesses in the United States.

There is considerable debate over the precise political nature of the district. Although Democrats Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Van Buren hailed from the area, the district in recent times voted reliably Republican until 2004, when it supported Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer for re-election. Two years later, it helped Sen. Clinton win re-election and helped elect Democrat Eliot Spitzer to the governorship. Gillibrand knocked off embattled Republican Rep. John Sweeney that year as well. She easily won re-election last November, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the district by 3 points.

In short, this district is fairly typical of the many historically Republican areas of the Northeast and Midwest that began to move away from the GOP as it took on a distinctly Southern accent in leadership style and in its emphasis on social and cultural issues.


Tuesday's nail-biter suggests that even though the district has not returned to its Republican roots, it also did not vote as strongly Democratic as it did in up-ballot races of 2006 and 2008.

It's easy to give the outcome of a special election too much weight. The idiosyncrasies of each race often make it a real stretch to extrapolate national import from the result of a battle for 1/435th of the House. Looking for a pattern is a much more useful endeavor.

If Republicans manage to win this special election, then go on this fall to defeat embattled Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey and also capture Virginia's open governorship, we analysts will be able to legitimately say that the GOP has begun to exorcise the demons that plagued it in 2006 and 2008.

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On the other hand, if Democrats hang on to their precarious lead in New York's 20th and manage to retain both the New Jersey and Virginia governorships, that would be a good omen for their party in terms of its ability to retain many of the seats it captured from the GOP in 2006 and 2008. Keep in mind that since 1977, the party winning or holding the White House in the preceding election has always lost the Virginia gubernatorial race the next year.

No individual race tells us much about the political future. But if three contests end up much the same way, that's a pattern worth noting.

This article appears in the April 4, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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