CONGRESSIONAL SPECIAL ELECTIONS don't normally generate much national buzz. But the race to fill the House seat previously held by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand might be an exception. The election in the state's 20th Congressional District--now scheduled for March 31--pits New York Assembly Republican leader Jim Tedisco against business executive Scott Murphy and could shake up politics as usual with its mix of broader state, regional, and even national issues.
For the past decade, the state's GOP has performed more like the '62 Mets than the '62 Yankees (the Bronx Bombers won the World Series that year, while the then-hapless Mets nearly set a Major League season record for losses).
Does politics imitate baseball? Ten years ago, Republicans held 13 seats in the state's congressional delegation. Today that number stands at three. Redistricting, retirements, and the occasional scandal have thinned the party's numbers dramatically since 1999. It's been ugly.
Some believe the changing image of the GOP nationally over the last decade--with the perception of the party becoming more Southern and conservative--contributed to the party's sagging electoral fortunes. July 1999 was a watershed. That's when former Republican Congressman Mike Forbes switched parties due to conflicts with his party leaders in Washington. That started a decade of regional decline.
A Tedisco win, however, could reverse the slide. And right now his fundamentals look strong. He is well-known in the district--and particularly around the populous Albany area--after serving in the state legislature since 1982. Tedisco serves as the party's minority leader in the State Assembly. Republicans also enjoy an over 70,000-vote registration advantage in the district. Recent numbers show 20th Congressional District registered voters as about 41 percent Republican, 26 percent Democrat, and 32 percent "other." Prior to Democrat Gillibrand winning in 2006, Republicans John Sweeney and Gerald Solomon represented large chunks of the district.
By contrast, Democratic candidate Scott Murphy is not well-known in the region. Early polling demonstrates his name identification problem. A Republican poll released last week shows Tedisco with a 50 to 29 percent lead on a head-to-head ballot test. These numbers, no doubt, will tighten as the campaign unfolds. But whether Murphy can close the gap enough in the roughly four weeks remaining is the big question.
When it comes to issues, the political texture of the race continues to develop. The vacancy created by the Gillibrand appointment caught both parties a little by surprise. So the development of major campaign themes is bit of a work in progress.
Republicans hit Murphy early for reported business tax problems and underscored his previous employment as a lobbyist in Missouri. The Democrats' narrative links Murphy very closely to President Obama. Murphy highlights his business background and boasts that he knows how to create private sector jobs. Democrats criticize Tedisco because he didn't support the recently enacted spending bill. They also label the GOP candidate as a "career politician" due to his long service in the New York State Assembly. However, as with most special elections, the fate of this one will be determined by the strength of each campaign's get-out-the-vote operations rather than the heft of its policy papers.
The race includes broader implications for the region as well. A win by the New York Republican leader might serve as a template for the GOP to recapture lost ground in the Northeast. "If you look at a map," a Republican strategist told me, "there are no congressional Republicans north and east of this district as you move into places like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont." A Tedisco victory would serve as a real shot in the arm in other areas of New York and parts of New England. It might send a signal that the obituary of Republicans in the Northeast was written prematurely. This could help with candidate recruitment, fundraising and general party enthusiasm as 2010 approaches.
Democrats will paint a Tedisco win as no big deal. It is, after all, a Republican seat based on registration. But it's also a district that Barack Obama won in 2008 and Democrats captured in the last two congressional cycles. Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg also sees the makings of a GOP comeback in the region. "It's possible that 2009 and 2010 could be the beginning of a rebound for the party," Rothenberg wrote on Monday. "While Democrats will continue to hold a clear advantage in the region, Republicans have the potential to become relevant once again."
A Tedisco victory could start that ball rolling. Keep in mind, even the "loveable losing" Mets of '62 won the World Series seven years later.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.