New York’s 20th: It Is a Little Like Kissing Your Sister

by Stuart Rothenberg April 6, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

It’s overtime in New York’s 20th, where Democrat Scott Murphy’s lead over Republican Jim Tedisco is so small that absentee ballots will determine the district’s next Congressman.

But in some respects it doesn’t matter who wins the seat. The results tell us something about the public mood, the district and the art of running Congressional elections. And while both sides have reasons to feel good about the results, Tuesday night offered Republicans a small but important bit of evidence that they have turned the corner.

Both parties’ Congressional campaign committees and the Democratic National Committee sent out press releases moments after all the votes were counted Tuesday night. The Democratic releases were nearly identical talking points.

Democrats cited the GOP registration edge, argued Murphy had stormed back from more than 20 points down and asserted that they are confident that Murphy will expand his lead. Let’s look at the points one by one.

Much has been made of the Republican registration — far too much, even by those of us who should know better. You don’t need a doctorate in political science to know that registration is a lagging indicator and that what is important is how people usually vote.

Polling in the special election conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure arm asked party ID in two different ways, and the results are eye-opening.

When asked how they were registered, 30 percent of district respondents said that they were registered as Democrats, 23 percent said that they were registered independents and 44 percent said that they were registered Republicans — a 14-point GOP advantage.

But when those same respondents were asked how they usually vote, 28 percent said they usually or always vote Democratic, 34 percent responded that they were ticket-splitters, and 34 percent said that they usually or always vote Republican — a much smaller 6-point GOP edge.

People in this district may be registered as Republicans, but many simply haven’t been voting that way. The district is competitive. President Barack Obama won it (51 percent to 48 percent), now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was elected to represent the district twice (with 53 percent and 62 percent) and President George W. Bush won it with only 54 percent in 2004. Bush won a very similarly configured district (then the 22nd) with just 50 percent in 2000. Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Rodham Clinton carried this district in 2006, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) won it two years earlier.

What does this mean? It means much, though not all, of this talk about the huge Republican nature of the district is baloney.

Second, talk of a stunning Murphy surge from far back is ridiculous and ignores normal campaign dynamics.

True, Murphy started behind Tedisco in initial ballot tests, but that was almost entirely because district voters knew Tedisco, a state legislator, but had never heard of political neophyte Murphy, who lived in Missouri until 2006.

The early deficit was entirely name ID. I’ve seen hundreds of races like this one, where an unknown candidate spends heavily and moves up in polls. That’s why, when my newsletter first rated the special election on Feb. 20, we rated it as Tossup/Tilt Republican. It looked competitive from the start.

Given both parties’ spending, the personal appeal and profile of Murphy, the excellent Democratic advertising and the fundamental competitiveness of the district — to say nothing of the popularity of both Obama and Gillibrand, and Gov. David Paterson’s (D) delay in declaring the seat’s vacancy — it isn’t surprising that Murphy started behind but closed the gap in the race.

Third, 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.

No matter who ends up winning this race, that didn’t happen in the 20th district. The president remains very popular in the district, and even some Republicans believe that voters there backed Murphy as a way of indicating their support for Obama and their willingness to give him more time.

While Murphy and the DNC injected the president heavily into this race (through advertising) and said the contest was a referendum on the president’s economic agenda, there is little evidence of a strong anti-Obama vote. On the other hand, a tie isn’t a huge vote of confidence for the president’s economic agenda, either.

The worry for Democrats is that the president’s numbers are so high that they have nowhere to go but down. And if that happens, districts like this will be harder to hold in 2010.

More importantly, think what this election would have been like for Republicans if it had occurred last November. Murphy would have buried Tedisco by 6, 8 or maybe 10 points.

The absence of George W. Bush as a factor in this race helped Tedisco, and it suggests that while Republicans certainly haven’t turned the page on the past eight years and still have plenty of damage to repair, they have hit the bottom and are starting to bounce back. That is good news for the GOP.