SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – There’s no winner yet in the Upstate New York special election and it might be mid-April before the race is settled. But a few things are clearer after Tuesday’s contest, none of it welcome news to the Republican Party.
The first election to take place during the Obama administration was a push, with neither side winning big or losing big. But that in itself ranks as a defeat of sorts for the GOP, which invested heavily in the race.
Republicans made this race a referendum on President Obama, his stimulus plan and big government policies. But voters divided almost exactly down the middle, showing almost no sign they wanted to brush back the new administration. And this is the precisely the kind of place where it would have been obvious had voters been so inclined—a Republican-leaning, small-town district that voted for Obama in 2008.
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the Democratic National Committee chairman, was quick to frame the race as a validation of Obama administration policies.
“Scott Murphy embraced President Obama's message of change and his plans to fix our economy and create jobs, and as a result he stormed from more than 20 points down to winning a majority of votes cast tonight,” Kaine said in a statement.
In the House, where Democrats have a nearly 40-seat majority, it hardly matters whether Democrat Scott Murphy, who ended the night leading by just 65 votes out of over 154,000 ballots cast, or Republican James Tedisco is declared the winner.
It was the psychological component to Tuesday’s contest which made it significant. For the GOP, the long road back to power has to start somewhere, and a seat like this one with a 70,000 Republican voter registration advantage was the logical place to begin.
After all, if the party can’t win with a head start like that, on the heels of the AIG bonuses furor and a massive expansion of federal spending, where can it win?
For that reason Republicans bet heavily on the race, with Republican National Committee Michael Steele pumping money and resources into the district, and the National Republican Congressional Committee pouring in $818,000 on top of that. Their efforts were aided by conservative groups, led by the National Republican Trust PAC, which spent an additional $819,000.
National Democrats spent considerably less, led by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent $591,000. The party’s allies in the labor movement assisted Murphy’s get-out-the-vote effort.
Recognizing the difficulty of the terrain, Democrats sought to downplay expectations throughout the campaign. Obama himself played a limited role, only going so far as to send two e-mails endorsing Murphy to party activists in upstate New York and allowing his image to be used in a small $10,000 ad buy from the Democratic National Committee.
Vice President Joe Biden likewise kept his distance, chipping in only a radio advertisement and a robocall on Murphy's behalf.
In the end, that strategy worked. Because even if Tedisco is ultimately declared the winner when all the votes are finally counted, the delayed result will have diminished any momentum that a clear cut Election Night victory would have provided. As it stands, downbeat Republicans are already preparing for the worst.
“Don’t let the Democrats steal this election. Less than 80 ballots separate Republican Jim Tedisco and his Democrat opponent,” read a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising email sent not long after the last precinct reported Tuesday. “We need your support to ensure we can overcome the Democrats’ legal maneuvers. Democrats have almost succeeded in stealing the election in Minnesota and seating Al Franken. We cannot allow them to manipulate electoral results to seat another tax-troubled liberal.”
NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was reduced to noting that the tiht race itself was an accomplishment.
“For the first time in a long time, a Republican candidate went toe-to-toe with a Democrat in a hard-fought battle over independent voters,” said Sessions. “This was hardly a common phenomenon in 2008, particularly in the Northeast.”
As it became clear the race would not be decided Tuesday evening, both candidates took to the podium to declare they would prevail.
“I believe when the smoke clears we will have won a tremendous victory,” Tedisco told a ballroom of several hundred cheering supporters at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs. “I know you all are ready to celebrate, but we’ll have to wait a little longer,”
Murphy, who was joined by Gov. David Paterson (D) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) onstage, also sounded an optimistic note.
"The people in Washington said it couldn't be done. The people in this room and all across the 20th District tonight said something very different,” Murphy said. “Most of all I want to thank the voters…This is their victory -- they turned what the pundits said was impossible into a success.”
In his remarks, Paterson went a step further, calling Murphy “our new congressman” and “Congressman-elect.”
“With our backs to the wall, rather than feeling despair Democrats pulled together, started working, and, I think, outworked the opposition,” Paterson said. “This is not the end of the campaign. This is a prelude to service in this district by our great, great congressman-elect -- not only that, our new congressman, Scott Murphy.”
Both parties claim they will be in the lead when the absentee ballots are totaled. Tedisco’s chief of staff Bill Sherman said the campaign is confident it will regain the lead because registered Republicans have cast a plurality of the absentee ballots that have been received so far.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he was “confident Murphy will expand his lead” in a statement congratulating Murphy’s “extraordinary” campaign
Murphy, a businessman who began the campaign with almost no name recognition, started off as an underdog. He had no experience running for office, tapped for the Democratic nomination largely more because of his ability to self-finance a race.
But as he became better-known and tied his fortunes to Obama and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who vacated the House seat and remains popular within the district, he closed a double-digit gap in the polls and turned the race into a dead heat at the end.
His rise in the polls came as the race turned into a referendum over President Obama’s economic proposals. Murphy argued that Obama’s stimulus was necessary for revitalizing Upstate New York’s struggling economy, while Tedisco argued the plan was full of wasteful spending after initially declining to take a position.
In the race’s final weeks, Tedisco hammered Murphy over the provision that allowed AIG employees to receive millions in bonuses.
The contest will ultimately be decided by as many as 10,000 absentee ballots that have not been counted. A New York Board of Election spokesman said the tallying of the remaining ballots will not begin until April 6 at the earliest.
Kraushaar reported from Saratoga Springs; Mahtesian, from Washington.