The New York 20th congressional special election is over but not decided. On Tuesday night Democrat Scott Murphy held a 65-vote margin. Recanvassing has put Republican Jim Tedisco narrowly ahead. The race will be decided by some 10,000 absentee ballots, 6,000 of which have been returned. These appear to favor, but do not by any means guarantee, that Tedisco will come out on top.
Democrats and their media spinners, who just days before the race declared this would prove the president’s enduring popularity and the electoral potency of his stimulus plan, have grown hushed. They mumble that it doesn’t mean much of anything. Just move along; nothing to see here.
But in fact it may mean something important. When a district which voted Democratic by a 62-38% margin drops to 50-50% in five months something is happening.
Stu Rothenberg declared “Tuesday night offered Republicans a small but important bit of evidence that they have turned the corner.” And he disputed the Democratic spin that registration figures favoring the GOP make this a supposedly “safe” district for Republicans, noting that Barack Obama and Kirsten Gillibrand carried the district in 2008 as did Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton in 2006, and Sen. Charles Schumer in 2004. He notes:
Talk of a stunning Murphy surge from far back is ridiculous and ignores normal campaign dynamics. … I can’t see why Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine would be confident that Murphy will expand his lead. I don’t know who will eventually win, but more Republican than Democratic absentee ballots have been received, according to GOP sources.
Finally, the returns have something bigger to say about the political environment, and both parties have reason to take away something positive from the dead heat.
Often, special elections are opportunities to send a message to the sitting president — a message of restraint and caution. We don’t trust you completely, so we are sending someone of the opposition to Congress to keep an eye on you, is how I’d put it.
But whether Scott Murphy (D) or Jim Tedisco (R) ultimately emerges from the morass of attys and absentee ballots as the NY-20 victor, new polling suggests GOPers may be the ones with bragging rights. … But almost as important for GOPers, our polling shows that indies are now up for grabs. That bears out what we saw in NY-20, where, according to the last Siena poll, Tedisco actually led among indies. When was the last time GOPers were competitive among these voters? It’s been awhile.
The party failed in ’06 and ’08 because its base was apathetic and because indies moved en masse to Dems. If the base reactivates, and if the party can continue to stay competitive among indies, ’10 could get interesting.
The take away may therefore be this: the president remains personally popular but his agenda does not provide cover, let alone help, to conservative and moderate Democrats.
That conclusion was strengthened by a new Fox poll which revealed that while Obama approval number remains a rather healthy 58%, his policies are not so attractive — particularly with independents. By a margin of 76-12% independents think we are at risk of spending too much rather than too little. There is a dead even split (46-45%) between independents who think Obama is up for the job and those who think he is in over his head. And by a 55-37% margin independents oppose the president’s budget.
That suggests that in districts like the NY-20, where Democrats depend on independents to swing their way, the Obama agenda is a negative influence and potentially a major impediment to Democrats. And a further note of caution for Democrats: unemployment at the time of the NY-20 special election was “only” 8.1% nationally, a figure that appears headed higher and higher.
The message for Republicans then may be threefold. First, Obama’s approval numbers do not appear to translate into electoral results and should not influence their stance on issues or opposition to high spending, which seems to have independents as well as Republicans very concerned. Second, the Northeast is not a lost cause for Republicans — provided they run candidates appropriate to the region and concentrate on a message of fiscal responsibility. And finally, George W. Bush had his last impact on the electorate in 2008. No longer do Republicans need to defend his record; now Democrats must defend Obama’s.
The NY-20 race is not yet decided. Democrats are up to their old tricks — trying to disenfranchise military voters and gearing up to win the recount if they can’t win the election. But the message has been sent: the age of Obama provides new openings for the GOP — if they can capitalize on them.