The special election in New York’s 20th Congressional District has become a toss-up. With just days left before votes are cast on March 31st, Democrat Scott Murphy, a political newcomer, is within striking distance of defeating veteran State Assemblyman James Tedisco (R).
The election was triggered when Gov. David Patterson appointed Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate seat that Hillary Clinton vacated when she was appointed Secretary of State. Gillibrand won her Congressional seat by upsetting four-term incunmbent Republican John Sweeney in 2006. Prior to her victory, the seat had been considered reliably Republican.
Because personal scandal had contributed to Sweeney’s downfall, many observers believed that when the charismatic Gillibrand moved on to higher office the seat would revert to its Republican roots. Indeed, a poll taken in the beginning of February, when the election was announced, showed Tedisco with a twenty point lead over Murphy – 51-29%. Close reading of the poll, however, revealed an opening for Murphy: most voters in the district were familiar with Tedisco from his thirty years in the district and were set in their opinions of him. Murphy, however, was an unknown entity and had the ability to increase his support. Viewed in this light, Tedisco’s slight edge over the 50% he would need to win began to look more like a liability than an advantage.
Murphy began to travel the district widely and, drawing on his own personal wealth as well as an impressive fundraising effort, began blanketing the airwaves with TV and radio ads to introduce himself to the voters. Murphy touted his work as a venture capitalist, highlighting the many jobs his companies had brought to the region.
Tedisco, with considerable help from the national Republican party, began airing ads attacking Murphy as a “Wall Street insider.” However, voters reacted poorly to his negative ads, and polls show that more voters felt the attack ads made them less likely to vote for Tedisco. Tedisco was also hurt by his refusal to state whether or not he would have voted for or against the economic stimulus bill, a non-position that attracted considerable criticism from the local press.
A poll released last week found that the tables have turned, with Tedisco leading Murphy by only four points, 45-41 – a virtual tie given the polls 4 point margin of error.
Rocked by this turn of events, Tedisco has spent the early part of this week attempting an about-face. First, Tedisco announced that he would be taking control of his campaign from the national party and take the high road by ending the negative ads. However, the political professionals at the Republican National Campaign Committee promptly announced that they had no intention of stopping the attack ads, no matter what Tedisco’s desires.
Next, Tedisco announced that he now had a position on the stimulus bill – he would have voted against it. This position has two potential downsides for Tedisco: (1) it’s unclear whether voters will view this 11th hour conversion as sincere and (2) even if they believe it, it is not clear the a vote against the stimulus package would be popular in this economically devastated district.
When this race began, Republicans pointed to it as an opportunity to prove that their electoral misfortunes of the last several years have been reversed, and that the Republican brand is not hopelessly tarnished. Now, with the race a dead heat, they are struggling for a narrow victory, which would still be perceived as a public relations debacle given the resources they have invested in the race. An equally likely possibility is that Murphy will win, showing that a once-reliably Republican district has shifted decisively to the Democrats.