New Political Openings for GOP in Age of Obama

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.

The National Journal's Hotline echoed this theme:

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.