WASHINGTON — When it comes to political races, 2008 will certainly go down as a year to remember.
It featured more than 50 individual Democratic presidential primary contests; it produced dozens of competitive Senate and House races (one of which is still undecided); and it concluded with a general election between Barack Obama and John McCain that captivated America.
Now, just four months later, the first truly competitive contest of 2009 is already upon us. On Tuesday, in upstate New York, Democrat Scott Murphy faces off against Republican Jim Tedisco in the special election to fill the seat in the 20th Congressional District vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who was appointed to replace Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate.
While political analysts usually caution not to read too much into special elections, this race seems to take up where 2008 left off. It has turned into a battle over President Obama’s economic stimulus. It also has become the first real test for embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
And, looking forward to next year’s midterms, Republicans have touted it as an early barometer of their political health in the post-Bush era — especially since it takes place in a region, the Northeast, where the GOP has found little recent success.
“This is the kind of district that Democrats have to hold on to,” said Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of Hotline, a political tip sheet.
“And if Republicans can’t win in this district, then how in the heck are they going to pick up seats elsewhere?”
A narrowing race
Tedisco, the minority leader in New York’s State Assembly, has been considered the front-runner in this GOP-leaning congressional district, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats, and which Republicans had controlled for 28 years until Gillibrand won it in 2006.
That said, Obama won 51 percent of the vote in this district last November.
But the race has narrowed, especially as voters have gotten to know the lesser-known Murphy, a venture capitalist. A Siena Research Institute poll released two weeks ago showed Tedisco leading Murphy by just four points (45 percent to 41 percent), down from his 12-point advantage (46 percent to 34 percent) a month ago.
“I really see this as a true toss-up at this point,” said David Wasserman, who monitors House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
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Battling over the stimulus
Without a doubt, the economic stimulus has emerged as the top issue in the contest. The Democrat Murphy supports it, while the Republican Tedisco — after not taking a position earlier — opposes it.
In fact, a recent television ad by Murphy blasts Tedisco for saying “no” to the 76,000 jobs the stimulus is projected to create for Upstate New York, as well as to the middle-class tax cuts in it.
“Scott Murphy is a businessman who’s created jobs,” the ad goes. “He knows we need the president’s economic recovery plan.”
On the other hand, Tedisco has seized on Murphy's support for the stimulus to argue that the Democrat also favors those controversial AIG bonuses, since it turns out that the stimulus included language protecting bonuses that had been agreed to before this past February.
“America is outraged about $165 million in bonuses paid to AIG executives after taxpayers bailed them out,” contends one of Tedisco’s ads. “Like AIG, Scott Murphy gave huge bonuses to executives in a company losing millions…And he supported a loophole, letting AIG executives keep their bonuses with our money.”
The ad concludes, “AIG and Murphy — he is one of them.”
Tedisco, however, has been criticized for trying to have it both ways. In addition to initially not staking a position on the stimulus — which the Albany Times Union said raised “serious questions about his qualifications to serve in Congress” — Tedisco has embraced Obama in one of his other ads.
“Like the president says: In these difficult times, we're not Republicans or Democrats. We're Americans,” Tedisco says in the ad.
A crucial test for Steele
The special election also is shaping up to be a critical test for RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who has gotten off to a rough start during his first two months as party chair (due to the controversies he stirred up on abortion, Rush Limbaugh and GOP moderate senators).
Yet Steele has turned this contest into a personal crusade of sorts. The RNC claims it has transferred $200,000 to help Tedisco win this New York congressional seat, and Steele even campaigned for him in early February. “We’ve come to play,” he said on that campaign swing.
“It is the first of a series of races that are coming up that are going to be incredibly important,” Steele told House Republicans shortly after his election as RNC chair. “That win will send a powerful signal to the rest of the country and especially those folks in the elite media who think they know so much more than the rest of us.”
“Our game is not up,” he added, “our message still rings true with countless Americans, specifically with those in the 20th congressional district.”
A must-win race for the GOP?
Some Republicans believe that, for Steele, much is riding on the outcome of this race. Steele “put a lot of chips on one number, and that number is NY-20,” said one GOP strategist who works in Washington. “They’re going to have to deliver. Part of being an effective party leader is winning races we can win or should win. And this is a race we very much should win.”
The strategist added that the stakes are even higher for Steele because of his recent stumbles and the GOP’s sizable registration advantage in the district. “If they can’t perform in NY-20,” the strategist said, “the P.R. isn’t very good; the fundraising isn’t very good; the GOTV isn’t good, then what is good? What exactly is good?”
Indeed, analysts say, Republicans losing a race in which they were initially favored to win would be a big story.
“If Republicans lose this race, it is likely to have more significant aftershocks than if Democrats lose,” Walter of the Hotline said.
“I think Republicans will have to do some introspection if they lose this race,” added the Cook Report’s Wasserman. “If there is any district in New York they should be able to get back, it is this one.”
Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro cover politics for NBC News.
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