No Winner in Race for Gillibrand House Seat

Neither the White House nor the Republicans were claiming any kind of mandate in the first special U.S. House race since Barack Obama became President, which ended last night (March 31st) in a near-tie.

The old tag line on the Saturday afternoon serials, “To Be Continued,” was appropriate for the results in New York’s 20th District, where Democrat Scott Murphy held a wafer thin lead of 65 votes out of more than 154,000 cast over Republican State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco.  

So, it will take two more weeks for New York election officials to determine whether Murphy or Tedisco has won the seat of Democrat Kirsten Gillebrand, who was appointed to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate.  With an estimated 10,000 absentee ballots mailed out and 6,000 received by Tuesday.  Under state election laws, the absentee ballots mailed from within the U.S. will be counted by April 7th and those coming from overseas counted on April 13th.

A bit nervously, state and national Republicans are counting on the overseas ballots — many of which were cast by men and women in the armed forces — to put their man over the top.  An independent committee known as Our Country Deserves Better and based in the 20th District spent an estimated $156,000 boosting Tedisco and focused on overseas voters and the families of servicemen.  Deborah Johns, the committee’s vice chairman and the mother of a Marine serving in the War on Terror, hit hard at Democrat Murphy for taking the Obama on line on a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

But that the race should come down to such uncertainty and that Democrat Murphy actually led in votes cast at polling places is something of an embarrassment to the GOP.  

The 20th, which was in Republican hands for 28 years until Gillebrand’s upset election in ’06, is considered the most solidly Republican of all U.S. House districts in the Empire State.  Voter registration is roughly 45% Republican, 28% Democratic, and the remainder unaffiliated or with minor parties.  In addition, the 58-year-old Tedisco, a state legislator for the last 28 years and GOP leader of the state Assembly, raised about $1.6 million to first-time candidate Murphy’s $900,000-plus.

What Went Wrong for GOP

Onetime Union College (N.Y.) basketball star Tedisco had problems from the start.  He was picked to run by the twenty state committee members from the district’s ten counties, a closed-door move that effectively shut out other contenders who might have done well had state election law provided a primary or district convention.  In addition, he lived just outside the district and, although a congressman is not required to live in his or her district, Democrats pounded hard at Tedisco for not being able to vote for himself.

For weeks in the campaign, the GOP nominee refused to say how he would have voted on the stimulus package.  Finally, Tedisco said he would have voted “no.”  His position, noted Reid Wilson of The Hill, “was helped by this month’s AIG bonus scandal because the stimulus failed to thwart those payments.”

Tedisco also disappointed conservatives by not speaking out against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which contains the controversial “card check” to scuttle the secret ballot in union elections.  

“Jim was scared out of his wits by the health care workers’ unions that he had dealt with in Albany,” was how one leader in the Conservative Party explained the candidate’s silence on an issue that is normally a “no-brainer” for conservative GOPers to oppose.

Although he carried the Conservative Party ballot line, Tedisco clearly did not energize his party’s right-of-center base that is so critical in special elections.  In contrast, Murphy did just that with his party’s left-of-center base and was on top in a district where Republicans hold a voter registration edge of 70,000 votes.

Millionaire venture capitalist Murphy, a Missouri native who has lived in New York for about ten years, ran as a  down-the-line Obama liberal.  He proudly embraced the Administration’s $787 billion stimulus package, met with Obama at the White House, and received a televised endorsement from the President.  The Democratic hopeful called for letting the Bush tax cuts expire (which would result in a tax increase), backed embryonic stem cell research and was pro-abortion (although, local sources told me, abortion and other cultural issues did not come up much in the contest).

The 39-year-old Murphy’s one bow to the right was to embrace the right-to-keep-and-bear arms.  This was a wise stand to take in a district top heavy with hunters and one which the NRA-supported Gillebrand trumpeted in her winning House races in ’06 and ’08.

It’s the Base, Stupid

Jim Tedisco may well put the 20th District in GOP hands yet.  We’ll know in about two weeks.  But the fact that he now trails in a such a Republican district must be blamed on an inept campaign that failed to motivate and excite those most likely to canvass, make phone calls, and vote in special elections — the conservative Republican base.

Weeks before the voting, George Marlin, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and 1993 Conservative Party nominee for mayor of New York, told me that “Republicans ran these issueless, cookie-cutter campaigns in special elections for the state senate in districts that were historically theirs.  And they lost both.  If this is the kind of campaign Jim Tedisco is running, he’ll lose as well.”

Clearly, those were prophetic words — and the results in New York’s 20th should be lessons learned for Republicans nationwide.