New York House Special: Welcome to Overtime

Tactical Errors May Haunt the Two Parties

Posted April 1, 2009 at 6:13pm

As they came to grips Wednesday with the knowledge that a new Congressman from New York’s 20th district won’t be sworn in for at least another two weeks, leaders from both political parties worked to spin the too-close-to-call results from Tuesday’s special election and insist that their candidate would have the upper hand when absentee ballots are tallied in the days ahead.

What essentially stands as a tie right now — at press time, Democrat Scott Murphy held a 25-vote lead over Republican James Tedisco — means that both parties can take some good news from the election.

For Democrats, their novice candidate leads after an eight-week campaign that he began as a complete unknown. Continually touting the benefits of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan, Murphy, a venture capitalist, quickly closed a 21-point gap in the polls, despite the 70,000-voter Republican overlay in the upstate district.

For Republicans, their candidate, a seasoned state legislator, overcame early missteps and may have turned around a district where voters have gotten used to voting Democratic in recent elections. The last public poll on the race showed Tedisco trailing by 4 points, but he seemed to find his voice in the final 10 days of the campaign by expressing skepticism over the stimulus and Democratic rule in Washington, D.C.

Of course, both sides disagree on which party invested more political capital in the race and which had more to lose.

No matter who is ultimately declared the victor, democracy undeniably was a big winner, too. Voter turnout in the race to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was about 38 percent — unheard of for a special election. More than 155,000 people voted — the highest number of voters to go to the polls in a Congressional special election since 1998, when Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) won her late husband’s vacant seat.

“I thought for sure if we got 77,000 votes out for Scott Murphy, we would win,— said Larry Bulman, chairman of the Saratoga County Democratic Party.

But when an election is so close, what-ifs are unavoidable. And while pundits and the political parties try to see deep meaning in the results, it’s just as easy to focus on the tactical errors, the things the candidates and the parties did — or did not do — that may have cost them votes.

Start, at a very basic level, with the Republican nominee. Tedisco was a known entity in upstate New York, a pugnacious lawmaker who as Assembly Minority Leader has developed a talent for generating publicity. Zippy sound bites may titillate the Albany media in the heat of legislative battle, but they don’t necessarily translate in a district where many voters are hurting financially and not paying close attention to the skirmishes at the state Capitol.

Tedisco was nominated hastily by the Republican chairmen in the 10 counties in the sprawling district. But some GOP strategists in both Washington, D.C., and the Empire State believe that another potential contender, state Sen. Betty Little (R), would have been a stronger candidate.

Little, these operatives believe, is temperamentally more moderate than Tedisco and would have attracted some centrist female voters who have drifted into the Democratic column in recent elections. She also represents three northern counties in the Congressional district where Murphy defeated Tedisco.

“I think if it was Betty Little, we’d know today who had won,— one Republican insider closely familiar with upstate New York said Wednesday.

Once the campaign got under way, Tedisco for almost a month refused to answer questions about whether he’d have voted for Obama’s stimulus package, and he was ridiculed by Murphy and criticized by local editorial writers. When he finally came out against the plan, that brought a new round of criticism.

While TV ads from both candidates and the groups supporting them were almost uniformly negative, voters perceived those coming from Tedisco and the GOP camp as more negative, according to a Siena Research Institute poll released late last week. Ads with a more positive tone, or that attempted to speak to voters’ economic fears, could have been more effective and yielded more votes.

Murphy undeniably benefited by associating himself with Obama and the stimulus, but national Democrats did not seem to engage in the race the way the national GOP did — new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, after all, called the special election the place where the Republican Party would begin down the road to recovery.

Late last week, Obama e-mailed two pleas of support for Murphy, and Vice President Joseph Biden cut a radio ad for him. The Democratic National Committee ran a TV ad — a small, $10,000 buy — that showed Obama’s and Murphy’s images together.

“I think every voter who went into the voting booth knew that the president supported Scott Murphy,— Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said Wednesday.

But would an appearance in the district by Obama or Biden have put Murphy over the top? Did the DNC err by running such a small ad buy?

The Democrats took their chances running a political neophyte, but in drafting Murphy, they found a candidate “who compares favorably to Gillibrand,— according to the GOP insider. Murphy seemed polished and quickly hit his stride as a campaigner. But Tedisco managed to put him on the defensive late by challenging him on whether he knew that the stimulus bill preserved the millions of dollars in bonuses for executives of the insurance giant, American International Group. A more experienced candidate may have found a way to finesse the question; Murphy never did.

Looking back may be the stuff of nightmares for political consultants, but the next two weeks are also fraught with peril for the two campaigns. A re-canvass of the votes is already under way, and absentee ballots will be counted starting on Monday.

More than 10,000 absentee ballots had been sent out to voters in the special election; as of late Wednesday afternoon, more than 6,300 had been returned. Military personnel working overseas do not have to get their ballots to local elections officials until April 13, and it is entirely likely that both sides could wind up challenging the validity of certain absentee ballots, sparking lawsuits that could stretch on indefinitely.

In an e-mail appeal to potential donors Wednesday, National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison raised the specter of the long Minnesota Senate recount.

“Democrats have almost succeeded in stealing the election in Minnesota and seating Al Franken,— he wrote. “We cannot allow them to manipulate electoral results to seat another tax-troubled liberal.—

Van Hollen was dismissive of the fundraising appeal.

“That seems to be the Republican response to every election they seem to be losing,— he said.