Monday, March 30, 2009

Is the New York Race a Referendum on the Candidates or Politics?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Is the special election in New York’s 20th district a referendum on the national political environment — on President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C.’s handling of the American International Group bonus scandal, the economic stimulus package and the national reputations of the two parties? Or, rather, is it about the skills and appeal of the two candidates?

It’s about both.

Republican Jim Tedisco initially appeared to possess the most important qualities for the brief campaign. A veteran of the New York state Legislature, he is known as “Mr. Schenectady” and has deep roots in the area. He also appeared to benefit from the district’s GOP leanings and a 70,000-voter registration advantage.

But even some Republicans acknowledge that Tedisco, the State Assembly Minority Leader, is, as one put it, like “the old dog that can’t learn new tricks.” Democrats have used his lengthy record against him, portraying him as an insider and part of the problem.

One Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-funded TV ad, for example, asserted that “politician Jim Tedisco” is “just another Albany politician,” while a different spot attacked the Republican for collecting per diem allowances from the state even though he lives 17 miles from Albany.

Democrat Scott Murphy, 39, has never run for office before and claims to have created jobs as a businessman. He worked for two Democratic governors in Missouri, but voters don’t seem to care that he hasn’t lived in the area as long as Tedisco. The Democrat presents himself as the candidate of change and new ideas, another not-so-subtle effort to create a contrast with his Republican opponent.

Murphy stumbled out of the gate but has become a better candidate. And yet he has given Republicans openings, such as his recent comment that he opposes the death penalty even for terrorists. That view is simply out of touch with the district. And his decision to reiterate his support of the stimulus bill, even knowing that a measure to prevent bonuses for executives of companies like AIG had been removed, is a potentially serious blunder.

Still, local observers note that the Midwestern Murphy may be a better fit for the northern and southern parts of the district than Tedisco, an urban ethnic politician who plays well in Schenectady and Albany — neither of which are in the 20th district — but not necessarily in the “white bread,” old Yankee areas of the district.

But while the candidates matter, so do the race’s atmospherics, and that’s where national figures and issues come into play.

Polling shows Murphy doing well among independents and getting a chunk of GOP voters, a function no doubt of his outsider profile and embrace of change, jobs and Obama.

Obama carried the district in 2008, and he remains popular. So is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who won it twice. She urges voters to support Murphy in a TV spot, and she will be active in get-out-the-vote efforts in the race’s final days.

The jobs issue is Murphy’s ace in the hole. His campaign and the DCCC repeatedly emphasize the Democrat’s support of the president’s job creation agenda, trying to create a contrast with Tedisco.

While the Republican nominee has talked about job losses and his commitment to bringing jobs to the area, nationally, the GOP still has problems convincing voters that it has a quick fix for job losses. The Republican Party’s image is poor, and the national atmosphere isn’t better for the party than it was in 2006 and 2008.

Fundamentally, the Republican answer to all economic slowdowns and unemployment is tax cuts, and while party policy advocates may be correct that that is the best way to get the economy going and to keep it going, tax cuts simply aren’t a compelling message to voters who have lost their jobs and want immediate help. The national Democratic approach is more effective, politically, right now, and Murphy seems to be reaping the benefits of that advantage.

The big questions in this race, however, involve AIG, the insurance giant-turned-financial services company. Is Tedisco benefitting enough from the issue to help him win?

The Republican continues to attack Murphy on that front, noting in a radio spot that began airing Tuesday that the Democrat “backs the law allowing AIG millionaires to collect outrageous bonuses” and that that’s not surprising because Murphy has “approved bonuses for failing executives before in another company taxpayers helped.”

Insiders agree that the race is “within the margin of error,” which is why both sides are so focused on turnout. A new Siena College poll expected to be released Friday could be an important indicator of how the race has moved in the campaign’s final days.

If Tedisco loses, it’s hard to see how National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele deserve any blame, but I’m sure someone will fault them. If Murphy wins, local Democrats and the DCCC will deserve considerable credit, as will the candidate.

If Tedisco wins, it isn’t likely to be pretty, and Republicans should breathe a sigh of relief rather than celebrate wildly.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 26, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.