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Five Things To Watch in NY-20

Voters head to the polls in New York's 20th district today to choose a replacement for appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), a close race in a swing seat that has seen considerable spending by both national parties and will almost certainly be cast as an early referendum on President Obama's agenda.

We'll have full coverage of the results later tonight on the Fix but in the meantime, here are five things to keep an eye on as the day progresses:

1. Saratoga County: The most populous county in the district, Saratoga is absolutely critical to state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco's (R) winning formula. It leans Republican and contains areas that Tedisco represents in the state Assembly -- meaning that if he doesn't carry Saratoga, he likely won't win. By way of comparison, Gillibrand won Saratoga by 26,000 votes in her 2008 blowout victory and by 6,000 when she ousted then Rep. John Sweeney in 2006.

2. Did Democrats Spend Enough?: National Democrats were outspent by national Republicans in this race by roughly $200,000, a spending pattern reflective, perhaps, of how important getting a win is for the downtrodden GOP. If venture capitalist Scott Murphy (D), who has spent $250,000 of his own money on the contest, wins tonight then Democrats will look like master strategists. If he comes up short -- particularly if the race is very close -- there is likely to be significant second-guessing of a majority party who let themselves be financially outgunned in the first special election of the Obama presidency.

3. The GOP Circular Firing Squad: Most Republicans we talked to over the past 48 hours expect Tedisco to come up short against Murphy today. If that happens, the blame game will begin quickly and for good reason. On paper, this was a very winnable district (a 70,000 Republican voter registration edge) and Tedisco, a well-known local legislator, was a good fit for the seat. The campaign has played out differently as Murphy used Obama's popularity -- among Democrats, Independents and even some Republicans -- to gain the momentum in the race and never relinquished it. Should Tedisco lose, this will be seen as an opportunity lost and will likely redound negatively for Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who promised to make the party competitive in the Northeast, and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas).

4. Dutchess County: Dutchess, in the 20th's far southern reaches, is covered by the costly New York City media market not the Albany market like the rest of the district. That means that the voters of Dutchess County weren't as heavily exposed to the media barrage as their neighbors to the north. (New York City television is cost-prohibitive in this sort of race, making direct mail the key voter persuasion tool.) What does this mean for Murphy and Tedisco? It's hard to know. But, the math probably doesn't add up for Tedisco if he doesn't win Dutchess.

5. The Obama Effect: How powerful is the Obama brand in downballot races? It's one of the central questions heading into the 2010 midterms and this special election will be the first barometer along the way. At times in Murphy's paid communication, it's hard to tell whether he is urging a vote for himself or for Obama. Murphy embraced Obama's economic stimulus plan early in the campaign and the president has been plastered all over Murphy's mail. The White House, for its part, has sent out several emails urging people to volunteer for and give money to Murphy but the Democratic National Committee's vaunted endorsement ad had only $10,000 behind it -- meaning that almost no one in the district saw it. Even so, if Murphy wins it's thanks to a strong assist from the president and an affirmation of the power of his political brand.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 31, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  House  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: White House Cheat Sheet: A President Abroad
Next: Parsing the Polls: The Era of Big Government (Or Not)


Even though he is running in a traditionally Republican district, Scott Murphy has an excellent chance of winning. Sensible New York Republicans can easily see how much better a job Obama is doing for the USA than all the disasters that Bush heaped upon us for eight long years. A victory for Murphy would be very helpful in keeping Obama's recovery programs rolling through Congress. "Pitchfork Populism" is all the Republicans have left to offer -- along with Halloween Witch Hunts for under-the-rug Socialists.

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Posted by: cjprentiss | March 31, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

The popular vote total will be interesting to see. While a special election a lot of money has been spent on the election.

Saratoga county is populated with urban professionals who may vote in large numbers. The negative campaigning by Mr. Tedisco may not have played well and worked against him.

Both parties blanked the air waves so money was not an issue.

Posted by: oldgeek143 | March 31, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Agree with Beverly 100%. This is a small race, watched by no one outside of the political realm and the district itself. There's no national hype to bump either candidate's numbers.

Also, just wanted to point out what someone said elsewhere: just under 6,000 absentee ballots have been received, meaning the winner has to be ahead by more than that to be declared the victor when the polls close. Interesting to see that 6K was also Gillibrand's margin of victory when she was a relative unknown...

Posted by: changeisgonnacomeusa | March 31, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree that too much is being made of this race and, by extension, of whatever the outcome is. Significant Republican registration edge and considerable edge on media spending says they should win easily. Gillibrand is a very conservative Democrat (praise the Lord and pass the ammo), so no surprise that she would have done well. OTOH it needs to be remembered that Republicans in this part of the country are Rebublicans of the traditional stripe, most decidedly not neo-con wingnuts. The dynamics are too complex to be read with any degree of certainty. Last poll (don't know by whom) out yesterday says Murphy by 4 points, probably about the margin of error.

Posted by: rsh43 | March 31, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I just heard you on Andrea Mitchell's show, and you have turned this into a big deal. If Repugs win, you claim it shows a diminishing support for Obama, and if Dems win, it shows support.

This is a Republican district- if Dems win, great but I don't believe one small district is indicative of the entire country and the publics support for Obama.

You put too much on the line- Repugs already have the home court advantage- it's not fair to put that psychological disadvantage on Dems.

Posted by: beverlytarlow | March 31, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse


Murphy will squeak by...

...a warning to the Dems that they need to work on the cosmetics of recovery and not make it look like Big Brother knows best. The heavy-handed Rick Wagoner hit job may have a multiplier effect that is not limited to the far-right echo chamber.



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Before the naivete of liberals empowers the saboteurs and Dr. Strangeloves who say "No!" to change.


Where is the civil rights division investigation that victims have demanded?

Or is there "nothing to investigate" -- because the government already knows all about this?

Posted by: scrivener50 | March 31, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

another take:

"At first glance, it seems hard to believe that Democrats had this district at all -- but there is an explanation. According to the most up-to-date registration statistics, provided to TPM by the state elections board, the district is 41% Republican to only 27% Democratic. And yet Kirsten Gillibrand picked it up in 2006 and was easily re-elected in 2008, and Barack Obama narrowly carried it in 2008.

So in practice, the unaffiliated voters have really become soft Democrats by a wide margin, more than making up the difference -- meaning that this is a Republican district on paper only, and a genuine toss-up in the real world. The question for Dems is whether they can hold on to these newly Dem-leaning independents, and also turn them out to the polls in a special election.

Fun fact: Murphy already starts out with a one-vote lead, having gone to the polls this morning. Tedisco, however, can't actually vote for himself because he doesn't live in the district."

Swing voters in the last election leaned heavily D. Of course, the press has put out a withering barrage of criticism of Obama in the last few weeks, so we'll see if that affects the vote.

Posted by: drindl | March 31, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

So. This has gone from a sure fire Republican pick up and a referendum on Michael Steele and the Republican party's mojo, to being a referendum on Obama's agenda. Thanks Chris. Without this, I wouldn't know how to spin this race. Glad all the pundits and political reporters like yourself are here to explain it to me.

Posted by: DJShay | March 31, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

On paper, the Rs win this with room to spare. In practice, who knows, but I get the feeling that Tedisco will pull a comfortable win. We will know soon enough!

Posted by: mig29m | March 31, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

The GOP has both more to gain and more to lose in this election. They need a win desperately after their recent trouncing, even in a district that leans their way.

Conversely, a loss could put them in full panic mode.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | March 31, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

This is now a district that sees itself as represented by a US Senator. That is ow my CD always felt about its former Congressman, LBJ, even when he was Majority Leader.

I do not know how that will play out - if you are a ticket splitter, do you see yourself hedging your bet with an R?

Posted by: mark_in_austin | March 31, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

The pressure here is on Murphy and the DCCC. They are more likely to have trouble with turnout. Mobilization is easy when there is a tangible benefit to winning a race (i.e. LA-06, IL-14, IN-07, etc.), but when you already control Congress and the White House, convincing people to show up to vote in a special election is a challenge.

Posted by: johnnydrama36 | March 31, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

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