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Wag the Blog: What Does NY-20 Mean?

Is the New York special election a sign of President Obama's political strength or the first step in Republicans' rebuilding? Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

Although there's no winner yet -- and won't be for at least another few weeks -- in the New York special election to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), the debate over what the race means is already well underway.

Politico's Josh Kraushaar and Charlie Mahtesian kicked the conversation off with a piece yesterday in which they concluded:

"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 Barack 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 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."

Then came a column in the newspaper Roll Call this morning (subscription-only) from Fix friend Stu Rothenberg in which he concludes:

"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."

Rothenberg adds later that if this election had been run last November Scott Murphy, the Democratic candidate, would have almost certainly beaten state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R) by a margin between six and ten points.

The tie vote -- Murphy currently leads by 25 votes with thousands of absentees yet to be tabulated -- argues Rothenberg is evidence that after eight years of George W. Bush as president, Republicans have "hit the bottom and are starting to bounce back."

There is, of course, a third option when seeking to divine meaning in the New York special. And that is that there is no national meaning -- that in an election that is almost certain to be decided by less than 100 votes it's a fool's errand to try to draw conclusions about what it all means.

For today's Wag the Blog question, we want to hear your opinions on what (if anything) the vote in New York's 20th district tells us about President Obama, former president George W. Bush and the state of the Republican party.

Offer your thoughts in the comments section below. The best of the best will be culled for their own post over the weekend.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 2, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Wag The Blog  
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I'm starting to think that the pundits really overestimate the impact of special election. After the Democrats won their three special elections in 2008, everyone kept going on about their unstoppable momentum and the massive GOP bloodbath that would take place in the November elections. When November finally came around though, while Democrats did gain a lot of seats, it was quite a few less than most had expected. Combining that with how close the NY-20 race is, I think that the only thing this race will tell us is who the next Representative from NY-20 is, and nothing more.

Posted by: Largo833 | April 5, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

The GOP is going to fight harder and harder the more the Party is in trouble. But I like Obama Dont know how the GOP keeps attaking him. I seen an online game thats coming out called Obama12, End of days. heres a link
I thnk maybe the GOP is behind it., Youtube is abuzz with it.

Posted by: pastor123 | April 4, 2009 4:13 AM | Report abuse

Gillibrand is a Blue Dog. She has a 100% rating from the NRA. She knew how to play to the conservative area that she was serving. Obama may have won in the area, but the voters were probably (rightfully) tired of the politics of the Bush administration.

Posted by: HannahBanana | April 3, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

I thought NY-20 referred to a prediction former New York Senator Hillary Clinton would be reelected to a second term as President in 2020.

Just kidding.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | April 3, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Chris, as you mentioned on one of the political shows (Hardball?), politics is about PERCEPTION. Tedisco SHOULD have won by big margins--bigger than average, given Murphy's relative anonymity. I don't see that this is a sign of the Republicans having 'turned the corner' at all. Quite the contrary. As I believe one of your idols (Charlie Cook) said the other day (I'm paraphrasing), 'This [swing district election] doesn't solve the Republicans basic problem of suburban voters realigning behind Obama and his party'.

Posted by: sverigegrabb | April 3, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse


I live in this District. Look at the map - it's an odd-ball gerrymandered district that Republican Governor Pataki and Senate Leader (rep) Bruno designed to ensure their man Sweeney would be in office forever.
Sweeney self-destructed but the District is Republican - the largest city is Saratoga Springs with a population of 28,000.
This is small town, farm and some suburbia - it is Republican.
Jim Tedisco should have won this race by 10 points or more. Gillibrand did a great job in the District. As a blue-dog and NRA supporter she represented the people of the District - and they gave her the highest total for any Congressional candidate in New York and probably one of the highest vote totals for any candidate in the country last November.
When Republicans try to say Tedisco scored an upset in a Democratic-leaning District, have they taken a walk through any town in the District where they will find the Town Board and the Town Supervisor Republican and each of the ten counties in the District has a Republican Board of Supervisors and a Republican County Clerk and Sheriff.
Tedisco is a Republican and a good man and he should have gotten enough Republican support to have won.
He attacked early when he should have been emphasizing his roots and commitment to the values that this District values. His attacks enabled his opponent to characterize Jim as just another Albany politician - and that's not good when people want change.

Posted by: billodonnell | April 3, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I don't think it means anything except that party registration figures may not be a good guide to predicting elections.

Posted by: RickJ | April 3, 2009 4:48 AM | Report abuse

I don't think it means anything excpet that party registration figures may not be a good guide to predicting elections.

Posted by: RickJ | April 3, 2009 4:47 AM | Report abuse

Though I would like to say that a REP win would indicate American voters are coming back to reality, unfortunately it wouldn't.

The talking heads will read their own prejudices into the outcome whichever way it ends up.
What I can say is that a close win either way will NOT be an endorsement of Obama's policies.

It will be an indication that NY-20 is not as solidly Rep as the talking heads say it is.

As a Special Election, it has its own dynamics, with a new Dem with some baggage in the form of AIG associations. Meanwhile the TH's will say that if Tedesco didn't win overwhelmingly it is a defeat for the Reps. Untrue, because he has his own baggage in the form of being a "carpetbagger" in that he doesn't LIVE in the district.

This can be a strong negative since Obama himself wouldn't have been a Senator, let alone Prsident, if his Senate opponent in Illinois had not been Alan Keyes who was not a resident of Illinois when he ran against Obama. Keyes was born in New York and was a resident of Maryland when he ran against Obama for the Senate.

So you see, not being a resident of the state or district you are running for is a major negative. The Dems tried to win IL-06 in 2006 by carpetbagging an Iraq war vet, Tammy Duckworth (soon to be Asst VA Secretary), without success. She didn't live in the district but the Dems felt that her war injuries would give her a free pass to the House. Even with the endorsement of every major newspaper in Chicagoland and dozens of local newspapers in IL-06 they were wrong. She was rejected by IL-06 voyers in spite of all of her endorsements. They had tried the same in 2004 with Christine Cegelis, who also didn't live in the disrict and she lost as well even though the voters of IL-06 were fed up with Henry Hyde's poor representation of the district.

So if the GOP loses NY-20, don't necessarily read that as the death of the GOP. Rather as the voters rejecting "carpetbaggers" as representatives since I have found that no matter what party it is, voters want representatives who come from their own districts and not those trucked in from other districts.

Posted by: ShyGiy | April 3, 2009 4:43 AM | Report abuse

2 comments. First: Yes, this race meant something. It meant something extremely specific about the opinions, desires, and characteristics of the voters in New York's 20th district. Given how complicated and unique special elections are, I haven't the foggiest clue what that "something" is, and I haven't heard a persuasive argument that anyone else does either.

Second, the number of news reports I read that said, "Given low turnout in special elections, etc., this race probably doesn't say all that much. However, in the media it will be a symbolic victory, so I'm going to pre-interpret what that may mean." The circular logic is infuriating! However fun and exciting it is to analyze, government is not a game, and it's things like this that keep people's attention away from the things that actually matter.

Posted by: gezi | April 3, 2009 2:26 AM | Report abuse

When in doubt, the simplest explanation is often the best.

Should this race be decided in Murphy's favor, one has to conclude that Obama continues to offer down ballot Democrats a stiff wind at their backs while national Republicans offer only drag for their candidates.

Why? An unknown, rookie candidate comes from double digits down to defeat a well-known Republican politician in a majority Republican congressional district by anchoring himself to President Obama and his policies.

Only Rothenberg and those rooted in the D.C. bubble could say with a straight face that a narrow Democratic victory in NY-20 means Republicans nationally "have turned the corner".

Memo to Stu: If Republicans are not winning majority Republican districts with established candidates running against political novices, they are in the wilderness where there are no corners to turn.

Posted by: jttx | April 2, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

It is a big win for the Dems, because, even if Murphy loses, he pointed the way for the Dems to run against Rush 'n Bush 'n Right wing Gush. Wearing any of those albatrosses is enough to take down even a well established pol like Tedisco. When a Dem or non Republican can hang all three around a candidate's neck that candidate is in no condition to swim with the new breed of sharks in political waters.

WHEN Murphy squeezes out a win, look to his tactics to go viral in the next election.

Posted by: ceflynline | April 2, 2009 9:15 PM | Report abuse

NY20 election may be the product of too many variables(state and national issues) to ascribe meaning to any one. In terms of name recognition, Tedisco, as a long time leading Republican figure in State politics, had a huge advantage over new comer Murphy. The Republican candidate also enjoyed a funding advantage.

In addition to these disadvantages, the Democratic party proabably has a mixed reputation in the Republican-leaning district of NY20. On the one hand, New York State's Democratic party has lost some of its popularity after Spitzer's scandal and Paterson's tough budget proposals. On the other hand, the National Democratic Party and especially Obama are still popular in the state.

Clearly, Murphy became a competitive candidate when he aired adds supporting Obama's policies. His surge in the polls lost some steam when Tedisco linked Murphy's background in finance and his support for the bailout to AIG bonuses.

To me, the last minute movement in Murphy's poll numbers indicates that voters have confidence with Obama as long as stimulus dollars are spent wisely and encourage economic recovery. Since the deciding votes are absentee ballots, which were possibly cast when Murphy wasn't a household name in NY20, a Murphy defeat will not mean a rejection of Obama's policies or the recovery of the Republican brand.

Posted by: smmsanders | April 2, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: scrivener50 | April 2, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Tedischo hammered Murphy relentlessly for being a vneture capitalist, a member of the evil cabal who bankrupted this country, right during the period when the AIG and other exec compensation scandals were breaking. And this in a blue collar area. And Tedischo had backing, experience, an organization, big money from the party, etc. –– AND it's a highly republican area.

I mean, c'mon, let's get real. The Republican brand is as dead as Edsel and Enron right now.

Posted by: drindl | April 2, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

"Obama has not only named too many serving House and Senate members (that triggered this mess with Hillary) but many have come from risky seats. Locals have complicated by making poor choices (will Michael Bennet take a stand on EFCA? I guess not.)"

Yeah, I agree. It's kind of annoying that Obama is snapping up the good elected officials. I would have loved to see Sebelius take a run at Brownback's Kansas Senate seat.

Posted by: DDAWD | April 2, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

The NY-20 seat says a little bit more about the Republican Party than it does about President Obama, yet there's still very little to be said on either count.

President Obama's influence certainly did not hurt Murphy's numbers, but it wasn't the only thing behind his success. If Obama's influence held that much sway over the elections, the Democrats (following the seating of Al Franken) would have had 60 Senators following the special election in the South (Florida, I think?). However, the Republican incumbent won that special election easily. Obama helped Murphy, of course, but so did Murphy's strong debating skills, for instance.

The Republican party had a bit more at stake in the race. On the one hand, in a largely-Republican district, to have a race this close with a slight lead for the Democrat is almost embarrassing. On the other hand, in a district that elected a centrist Democrat, and voted for President Obama, the fact that the race is still so close is a sign that the Republican party isn't out for the count just yet. (It was probably more damaging for the party when Tedisco said he did not want the RNC or the NRCC's help with his campaign.)

Still, it's a fairly null set on either side. My belief is that this close election says more about Tedisco than it does President Obama or the Republican Party.

Posted by: lookoutoftheyard | April 2, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, it's a huge swing, but it's so early in the election cycle, that you'd have to go completely wonkish to read into it at all. So I'll give it my best shot:

The bloom is off the rose on the democratic government by this point. Obama and the dems have taken flak and gotten a little messy, but not more then you would expect from the GOP scorched earth playbook. The short term results are in and the short term trend is DRAMATIC: the GOP still hasn't won back the automatic loyalty of rural districts.

Why is this a big deal? Because in the last three months, Obama has given the GOP exactly what they dreamed of, politically. The GOP has been screaming themselves blue in the face about socialism, europe, democrats, deficits, etc. But the election was a draw against a weak democratic candidate.

There's another year and 3/4ths until the next election day. But the worst of the storm is probably past.

And the dems are looking like they represent rural districts as well as the GOP.

Nearly two years is a long time. Stuff can still change. But if the national GOP continues their current strategy, there's little reason to expect them to improve in rural districts. If the dems succeed in not scaring such districts after two years in office, the question isn't going to be if the dems are going to have a fillibuster proof majority. The question is going to be if the GOP holds any relevance outside it's core region.

Posted by: theamazingjex | April 2, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I think this is a victory for the Democrats if it really does have national implications (which we wont know if it does until this November or the next). 2008 was a wave election, like 1932 or 1964. Therefore, who cares what Stu Rothenberg says would've happened in 2008, because the special nature of waves make that kind of speculation less possible. What matters is twofold:
A) In a NEUTRAL year, Republicans would have likely cleared 55% in this district, as it is GOP territory.
B) The Republicans busted their asses trying to win here, outspent the Dems, recruited their best candidate, brought the superstars in to help, used their best attack lines, etc.
=C) The Result? A close race in which Murphy is slightly favored, when they (the GOP) say theyre on the upswing, in a Republican district. THE FACT THAT THE GOP KEPT IT CLOSE MAY BE THE ONLY THING THEY CAN CONSOLE THEMSELVES WITH. Maybe the Republicans don't need the ENTIRE bottle of Prozak, but they'll still want a handful.

Posted by: jsperez | April 2, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

You forgot teleprompter.

Posted by: mattintx | April 2, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I'll bet this story fades as quickly as Caroline Kennedy's political career.

Posted by: newbeeboy | April 2, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

What this means is that David Patterson screwed up by appointing one of the few NY House Democrats who was not a sure thing to beget an easy Democratic win. The only exceptions: Gillibrand, John Hall (NY-19), and newbies McMahon, Maffei and Massa. Politically the safe move was to remove Andrew Cuomo. Even the much maligned Carolyn Kennedy would not have given away a changing but not changed district.

Yes, Obama won this district and Gillibrand won easily despite a serious opponent in Sandy Treadwell. I wouldn't put a number on it but Democrats would have been more likely to hold an open seat last November than now.

Obama has not only named too many serving House and Senate members (that triggered this mess with Hillary) but many have come from risky seats. Locals have complicated by making poor choices (will Michael Bennet take a stand on EFCA? I guess not.)

By contrast Bush chose losers (Ashcroft) or Governors (Ridge, Thompson). Not one active Republican from Congress vs. Hillary, Salazar, Hilda Solis, Biden and Obama himself.

Obama has not made the push that Republicans did in the Georgia Senate runoff, the LA runoffs, or NY-20. Republicans have treated them as life and death and have been winning. Obama has been keeping his powder dry and has been losing. Jim Martin would have come in handy on the stimulus package, don't you think?

Posted by: kywddavid1 | April 2, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Option 3.

Posted by: johnnydrama36 | April 2, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

"does a tie mean that an election is meaningless?"

It is not the 'tie' that makes it meaningless, it is taking the votes of 160,000 people in a special election in one district & trying to apply them to the entire country that makes it meaningless.

Posted by: bsimon1 | April 2, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

The results are not quite meaningless as many are saying. In this normally rural and conservative district, the expected result would have been a Republican sweep. Yes, Gillibrand won handily the last time around, but that was the power of incumbency, plus she had accommodated herself very well to the local gun culture. (The first timee Gillibrand won was a fluke because her Republican opponent ran into some kind of legal trouble, I forget what.)

Now, the fact that a totally unknown Democratic candidate--a venture capitalist from somewhere else who'd only recently moved into the district--managed either to win or to lose by a whisker is significant. The more so because the Republicans ran an entirely true-to-type, veteran politician attuned to every local prejudice. Things certainly haven't settled back into their normal groove up there in NY-20.

Of course, as everyone knows, special elections like this invariably have low turnouts. Only the party/ideological faithful on either side, or the kind of person who never fails to go to the polls, show up to vote. In such cases, though, the advantage is always with the candidate representing the status quo--which, in NY-20, is the Republican candidate.

Thus, the fact that Tedesco performed so poorly is evidence that the Republican cause is still stuck in the cellar in the Northeast.

Michael Steele, go climb a stick and twitter.

Posted by: jm917 | April 2, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

So we're all in agreement here, right?

Although does a tie mean that an election is meaningless? If Obama tied McCain in Utah would that be meaningless?

Posted by: DDAWD | April 2, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

This Article is 100% correct regarding the GOP mouthpiece known as Stu:,-GOP-mouthpiece

Check out what Stu said about the NY-20 race just 7 short weeks ago:

"Gillibrand won the seat in 2006 by defeating a tainted incumbent, but she cruised to reelection last cycle in the traditionally Republican district.

"Without her incumbency, Democrats will have a tough time holding the seat. The national political environment hasn't improved all that much for Republicans, but they quickly rallied behind the candidacy of state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco (R), who already represents an important part of the congressional district. Meanwhile, Democrats took longer to choose their candidate, and finally landed on venture capitalist Scott Murphy (D), a wealthy, first-time candidate [...]

"Gillibrand's 2008 reelection made this district look more Democratic than it really is, but the national landscape hasn't improved all that much for Republicans. Low turnout special elections can be extremely volatile, but this is an excellent opportunity for Republicans to get one seat back.

Stu is a GOP hack stenographer who gets his talking points from the RNCC and then dutifully types them into his column.

How embarrassing.

Posted by: AjaxtheGreater | April 2, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Option #3 is correct. The inside-the-beltway types are trying too hard to divine the future based on a special election that represents 1/435th of the electorate. Of course the parties will try to spin the results to 'win' the news cycle, but 99.8% of America doesn't give a damn about NY-20.

Posted by: bsimon1 | April 2, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Parties aside- a political unknown has essentially tied the Minority Leader of the New York State Assembly!

If the Republicans win this race they will claim they've turned the corner, but that corner is that good Republican candidates will no longer lose to any random Democrat.

If the Democrats with this race they'll claim that the Republicans still have no credibility with the American people, and seeing that they would have beaten the NYSA Minority Leader...they'll have a point.

But, because of the delay, this contest will have very little implications. Most lay observers have forgotten about the race, and most insiders will know that any spin won't resinate if people don't care. Both the Dems and Steele will blame the counting/recounting if they lose. Everyone has cover. Also, no one gains much, because which ever side wins will probably look like they "stole" the election, at least to the extremists.

So, regardless of the outcome, the Democrats outperformed the 20th district's PVI, and the Republicans will come out of this with some momentum and lesson's learned.

Posted by: heymrtambourineman | April 2, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Here's my take on this election: It means nothing, and armpeg is an idiot.

Thank you.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | April 2, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Sigh. This is one of those times when the pundit class is trying to make a link to a pre-determined thesis.

Posted by: ncdem | April 2, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Option 3 is the right one to anyone except a spinmeister.

The Democrats are lucky to still have commenters like armpeg weighing in opposition. Isn't it sweet to be trashed by a moron?

Posted by: ajlerner1 | April 2, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

It's meaningless. Not because of the closeness of the race; sometimes a close race can be meaningful. This race was meaningless because special elections are always meaningless. Because special elections have much lower turnout and much more hype than regular elections, you can't compare them. And you certainly can't extract a trend from one data point. This election just doesn't matter.

Posted by: Blarg | April 2, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

While Bozo Obama's honeymoon is still in play--and probably will be until the piper has to get paid when his Socialist and Marxist chickens come home to roost--the NY election shows a trend. Gillibrant, as Chas. Krauthammer mentioned last night on the Bret Baer Show, won the seat by 6% on her first run, and got re-elected (running with Bozo Obama on the ticket), by 16% the 2nd time. That same seat now is 50-50, which is a 16% drop for the Democrap Socialists. With Bozo Obama's luster slowly but surely losing it's sheen, by the mid-terms, the Democrap Socialists will get their clocks cleaned big time.

Posted by: armpeg | April 2, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

"Rothenberg adds later that if this election had been run last November Scott Murphy, the Democratic candidate, would have almost certainly beaten state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R) by a margin between six and ten points. "

And if my mom had balls she'd be my dad.
What a ridiculous bit of reporting.

Posted by: Canonera | April 2, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse




Posted by: tallertapas311 | April 2, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I will post the first comment. The race in NY20 was so close that no matter the final result its total meaning is one vote in the HoR, no more, no less. IMHO.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | April 2, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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