Sept. 21, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Is the New York Race a Referendum on the Candidates or Politics?

Is the special election in New York’s 20th district a referendum on the national political environment — on President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C.’s handling of the American International Group bonus scandal, the economic stimulus package and the national reputations of the two parties? Or, rather, is it about the skills and appeal of the two candidates?

It’s about both.

Republican Jim Tedisco initially appeared to possess the most important qualities for the brief campaign. A veteran of the New York state Legislature, he is known as “Mr. Schenectady” and has deep roots in the area. He also appeared to benefit from the district’s GOP leanings and a 70,000-voter registration advantage.

But even some Republicans acknowledge that Tedisco, the State Assembly Minority Leader, is, as one put it, like “the old dog that can’t learn new tricks.” Democrats have used his lengthy record against him, portraying him as an insider and part of the problem.

One Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-funded TV ad, for example, asserted that “politician Jim Tedisco” is “just another Albany politician,” while a different spot attacked the Republican for collecting per diem allowances from the state even though he lives 17 miles from Albany.

Democrat Scott Murphy, 39, has never run for office before and claims to have created jobs as a businessman. He worked for two Democratic governors in Missouri, but voters don’t seem to care that he hasn’t lived in the area as long as Tedisco. The Democrat presents himself as the candidate of change and new ideas, another not-so-subtle effort to create a contrast with his Republican opponent.

Murphy stumbled out of the gate but has become a better candidate. And yet he has given Republicans openings, such as his recent comment that he opposes the death penalty even for terrorists. That view is simply out of touch with the district. And his decision to reiterate his support of the stimulus bill, even knowing that a measure to prevent bonuses for executives of companies like AIG had been removed, is a potentially serious blunder.

Still, local observers note that the Midwestern Murphy may be a better fit for the northern and southern parts of the district than Tedisco, an urban ethnic politician who plays well in Schenectady and Albany — neither of which are in the 20th district — but not necessarily in the “white bread,” old Yankee areas of the district.

But while the candidates matter, so do the race’s atmospherics, and that’s where national figures and issues come into play.

Polling shows Murphy doing well among independents and getting a chunk of GOP voters, a function no doubt of his outsider profile and embrace of change, jobs and Obama.

Obama carried the district in 2008, and he remains popular. So is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who won it twice. She urges voters to support Murphy in a TV spot, and she will be active in get-out-the-vote efforts in the race’s final days.

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