Going into overtime

Politics | New York's special congressional election, seen as a referendum on the stimulus, will be decided by absentee ballots
by Alisa Harris
Posted 4/01/09, 12:00 am

Ballots have been cast and the polls have closed, but a decision on who will fill New York's 20th Congressional District will have to wait. Out of more than 154,000 votes cast in Tuesday's special election, which has been labeled a referendum on President Obama's stimulus package, Republican James Tedisco leads Democrat Scott Murphy by a mere 65 votes. The winner, however, will not be determined until after the more than 10,000 absentee ballots mailed out to voters have been counted, a process that could take up to two weeks to complete.

The special election had been called to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate.

Tedisco, the New York State Assembly minority leader with 27 years of political exposure, began the race with a 12-point lead. The latest Siena poll, however, put him four points behind Murphy, a lesser-known candidate and a venture capitalist, in a district with a 15-point Republican edge in registered voters.

It has been a heated race, with each side tapping into economy-related angst and anger, tying the candidates to national issues. A National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) ad for Tedisco linked Murphy with AIG: "AIG and Murphy. He is one of them." Murphy's ads railed against Tedisco for not taking a stand on the stimulus package, and then attacked him for saying he would have voted, "No." Another indication of the national import: Some of the latest pro-Murphy literature featured a big picture of Obama and didn't even mention Murphy's name.

Both candidates raised over $1 million, with plenty of help from their respective parties-over $800,000 from the NRCC and $591,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The National Republican Trust PAC sunk another $820,000 into the race for Tedisco, with the SEIU Local 1199 spending $245,000 for Murphy.

Paul Lindsay, a spokesperson for the NRCC, said Republicans are not surprised with Tuesday's results: "We've always known this was going to be a close race. It's a Democratic-held seat in a region of the country where Republicans have traditionally not done well." Republican representatives held the district from 1993 through 2007, until Gillibrand won the seat from Republican John E. Sweeney.

Tedisco's faltering on the stimulus package coincided with his shrinking lead, but Lindsay said Tedisco "was very clear from the beginning that he would have supported it if it had the amendments that would have taken out pork in the bill. And he's been very clear that runaway spending in Washington at the expense of taxpayers in upstate New York is out of control."

As to whether the race is a referendum on President Obama's economic policies, Shripal Shah, Northeast Regional press secretary for the DCCC, delineated it as a "clear choice" between two individual candidates and their records. But Shah also linked Murphy to Obama when he called him "a strong leader like Sen. Gillibrand who will work with President Obama to get our economy back on track."

From the Republican perspective, Lindsay said, "This is a race between Wall Street and Main Street, and two candidates and their records."

Tedisco received endorsements from the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, and both the New York and National Right to Life organizations. Of course, one of Murphy's most prominent endorsers is President Obama himself, along with Planned Parenthood and a bevy of unions.

Prominent Democrats turned up the heat as the race got close, pushing it to more national prominence over the past few days. Obama told voters in the district that Murphy is "the kind of partner I need in Washington," and Vice President Joe Biden recorded a radio ad and messages for robo calls supporting Murphy. Campaigning for Tedisco was Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who from the beginning called the race a top priority.