Will One of These Men Help Obama?

With the appointment last year of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to the Senate seat of Hillary Clinton, all political eyes in the Empire State promptly on her upstate U.S. House District and the resultant special election. Voter registration showed the 20th District to be the most Republican in the Empire State, Gillibrand having broken a 28-year pattern of electing a GOP congressman by taking many centrist and conservative positions.

Without Gillibrand, the logic went, Republicans could recapture the 20th District and the national media would perceive their win as a blow to the Obama agenda.

With weeks to go before the March 31special election, the race between Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco is indeed being watched by the national media. It is the first special House election since Barack Obama became President, the next being that on April 7th for the safe-Democratic Chicago district formerly held by Rahm Emmanuel. The problem is that Murphy — venture capitalist and a Democrat in the mold of Obama and not Gillibrand — is gaining ground fast on Tedisco, Republican State Assembly leader and a conservative who by all accounts is not just saying much conservative.

A just-completed Sienna Research Institute poll showed Tedisco leading first-time candidate Murphy by an uncomfortable margin of 45% to 41% district-wide. Only two weeks ago, the same survey gave Tedisco a much healthier lead of 46% to 34%. The latest survey came on the heels of another poll, this one conducted by Benenson Strategy Group for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that showed Tedisco leading Murphy by 44% to 37%. 70% of voters in the 20th believe the economy is the top issue, according to Benenson.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist for interpretation: a win by Murphy March 31st will be ballyhooed by Democrats and the liberal media as a vote of approval on the Obama economic agenda and, if there has been no vote then, be a booster shot to enact the President’s $3.6 trillion budget.

“We got trouble on our hands,” is how one Republican political consultant e-mailed me about the poll figures earlier this week.

Sure, we all know the Democratic campaign organ has a big cash advantage over its Republican counterpart. The DCCC has spent nearly $200,000 on advertising boosting Murphy and he leads Tedisco in dollars raised. Sen. Gillibrand has made “robo-calls” on his behalf and fellow New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer has been raising money for Murphy. (Republican National Chairman Michael Steele has campaigned for Tedisco, and House GOP Leader John Boehner is expected to as well; Newt Gingrich and former New York Gov. George Pataki have also been helpful to Tedisco).

That spending has no doubt helped make possible the dramatic development shown in Siena Research’s figures: a shift among independents, who favored Tedisco by fourteen percentage points two weeks ago, to favoring Murphy by six percentage points now.

But something else has to be happening. My sources in the Empire State is that it is Tedisco is just not campaigning as a conservative.

What’s the Problem Here?

“Jim Tedisco’s a nice guy,” New York Republican Chairman Joe Mondello told me when we discussed the 20th District race during the RNC meeting in January that elected Steele national chairman. And he was also the highest-scoring basketball player at Union College (NY). The problem is that all this has nothing to do with winning a House race.

Although Tedisco has a record of being pro-life and a fiscal conservative during nearly thirty years in the legislature, he refused to say for weeks in the this campaign whether or not he would have voted for or against the Obama stimulus package. He finally did say he would have backed it with “with amendments” — something that was an impossibility by the time the near-trillion dollar package was voted on by the House. Every House Republican, of course, opposed the package.

Tedisco has also been reticent about his position on “card-check,” the labor union-backed provision in the so-called “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA) that would undo the right to a secret ballot in workplace unionization decisions. According to one former Assembly colleague of Tedisco’s, “Jim won’t touch this because he’s scared out of his wits about what the health workers’ unions will do to him.”

“This is the kind of campaigns Republicans ran in special elections for the state senate in the past two years and they lost both of them,” George Marlin, 1989 Conservative Party nominee for mayor of New York and past chairman of the New York Port Authority, told me, “issueless and colorless.”

Marlin (who, like just about everyone else, likes Tedisco personally) added that “special elections are base elections. You’ve got to give the base of your party something to motivate them and turn out. In low voter turnouts, the candidate who motivates the base wins. So you’ve got to stand for something, be a candidate who deserves to be loved by the base.

“But if Jim, who is a conservative, is campaigning in the way he is because of the Republican ‘cookie cutter’ strategy of not discussing issues, he may very well lose because of it.”