And yet again, we wait.
Following an abbreviated but frenetic election season, the race to replace Kirsten Gillibrand in New York’s 20th Congressional district seat came crashing to a somehow appropriate halt on the eve of April Fool’s Day. Money in previously unseen amounts had come flowing into a district which rarely garnered significant national attention in the past. Party leaders from both camps made personal appeals to the voters, with the president himself coming off the bench to aid Scott Murphy in his battle against Republican Assemblyman Jim “Jimmy Disco” Tedisco. When this reporter went to cover one of their debates in Saratoga Springs, I found a “press box” suited for the usual dozen journalists packed to the rafters and out into the hall with correspondents from CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the rest of the alphabet soup of mainstream media.
On the evening of March 31, all of the partisan pushing and shoving came to naught. When the final precincts reported in, Murphy held the slimmest of leads, announced as either 65 or 59 votes depending upon which published report you preferred to read. In a race where national Democrats hoped to demonstrate the president’s continued star power and the GOP sought an omen of midterm success to come, the result was disappointing for both camps.
A proclamation of victory, unsatisfying though it may be, could still lie a fair distance down the road. Roughly ten thousand absentee ballots were requested for this event which must be received and counted by April 7. An additional week is allowed for voters on active duty in the military. Article II of the State Constitution mandates a rapid count and conclusion to the electoral process specifically to avoid mischief with the ballot box once the votes are collected. This, however, has not prevented numerous legal scholars, authors, and law firms from making a fine living dissecting the Empire State’s arcane election laws.
Should the final numbers remain this close, provisions exist for challenges to the result. In extremis, precedent is in place for the courts to demand a new election if sufficient flawed or fraudulent ballots are found to have turned the tide of a close race. Any reasonable challenge from the losing candidate will at least be heard by a judge before the final result is certified. In any event, the odds of seating a winner shortly after April 13 appear slim unless one of them can rack up a lead of several hundred votes from the absentee ballots.
Should Scott Murphy hold on to his lead and carry the day it should not come as any great surprise to most observers. The momentum seemed to be running in his favor for the last three weeks at least, and many have overestimated the conservative nature of the district he seeks to serve. True, the 20th — containing largely rural farming areas such as Dutchess County — is quite conservative compared to Manhattan, but it is still in the Northeast, where Republicans have been hunted to near extinction since 2006. The GOP’s 70,000 advantage in voter registration in the district has been insufficient to deliver victories in the last two election cycles.
In the end, though, if Tedisco goes down to defeat, the blame will fall largely on his own campaign. When the candidates’ names were first announced, early local polling gave him as much as a twenty point advantage and even the first Siena polls had him up by double digits. This lead was squandered by a team which seemed to stumble and fumble their way through the process, leaving several opportunities on the table. Jim ran most of the race as if he still had an insurmountable lead, avoiding the dreaded label of “going negative” and running on the issues even as Murphy gained traction.
Tedisco also gave his opponent a huge gift early on when he refused to answer “the question” (as it became known in endless Murphy TV spots) as to whether or not he would have voted for the Obama stimulus package. This refusal, which went on for three painful weeks, became the focus of the campaign. It was only made worse when, asked by a reporter why he wouldn’t answer, the candidate defended himself thusly.
Mr. Tedisco said that if he answered the question, he would only encourage Mr. Murphy to pester him about other positions: “It won’t just be this, it’ll be, ‘How would you vote on the war in Iraq?‘ Those are hypothetical.”
That may well be the day the music died for the Tedisco lead in the polls.
In terms of missed opportunities, Jim never hit his opponent on guns — a sensitive topic in the largely agricultural communities of the region. Murphy was clearly obfuscating on the stump when it came to Second Amendment questions, but his past held a ticking bomb. He had been working with Mel Carnahan in Missouri while the governor was running a stealth campaign to torpedo Proposition B, which would have required officials to provide concealed carry permits to deserving citizens. With all the money poured into Tedisco’s race by both the state and national Republican parties, this never came up in the numerous ads they ran.
The general impression around the area was that Jim was simply reluctant to hit Murphy too fast or too hard and he wound up paying the price for it. Still, with the typical GOP advantage in military votes and ineffable trends of absentee ballots in general, Tedisco may take a seat in the People’s House. But if he does, it won’t be the resounding bellwether message that RNC Chairman Michael Steele had been hoping for.