Could Conservative Issues Have Saved NY-20 for GOP?

Although there were still absentee ballots to be counted in the special U.S.House race in New York’s 20th District, State Assembly Republican Leader Jim Tedisco threw in the towel a few days ago. As the unofficial tally showed Tedisco trailing by just under 400 votes, he nonetheless conceded graciously to Obama Democrat Scott Murphy. Thus, Democrats won the first special election for Congress of the Obama era and retained the upstate seat that two-term Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand quit to accept the appointment to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

But, many conservatives told me, it didn’t have to be this way. Tedisco had been thought a sure loser to Murphy before the balloting March 31. But in the preceding two weeks, supporters of the GOP hopeful not officially connected with the campaign began to pound hard on conservative themes such as abortion and taxes. Tedisco himself, who had taken his time before finally coming out against the Obama stimulus package, suddenly began to hit hard at the package and the enormous spending in it. He charged that the overspending was not related to economic recovery.

"And make no mistake about it — pro-lifers were key to Jim making this a photo-finish," Larry Cirignano, a veteran pro-family operative independent of the Tedisco campaign, told me. Cirignano helpd organize leafletting of predominately Roman Catholic neighborhoods with material showing the sharp difference between Tedisco (who had compiled a pro-life record in nearly three decades in the Assembly) and Murphy, who takes the strong pro-abortion Obama line.

"And Jim clearly got the message, because at the very end of the campaign, [his team] was running pro-life ads on TV," recalled George Marlin, 1993 Conservative Party nominee for mayor of New York and author of a insightful book on the Catholic vote. "When was the last time you saw pro-life commercials in any race in New York?"

Even Pat Boone got into the act at the end. The legendary crooner, who is national spokesman for the 60 Plus Association (a seniors advocacy group) and its crusade to abolish the estate tax, was featured in a hard-hitting robo-call to voters.

So a race that was thought to be a runaway for tthe Democrats turned out to be a cliff-hanger — but only after some drumbeats on "red meat" issues aroused the conservative base in the twilight of the campaign. Had it come earlier, might Tedisco have won? The ten-county district had been in Republican hands from 1978 until Gillibrand’s upset first election in ’06. Barack Obama carried it in ’08, but with only 51% of the vote. To run a campaign that was bland and issueless until the end was to forget the base that was clearly in the 20th District and could have been motivated in a special election.

Greenberg: 2010 Could Be Another 1934

Post-mortems on the special House race in New York-20 were coming to me, as I was discussing some just-completed survey research with veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. Democracy Corps, Greenberg’s polling company, had been in the field in 20 of the most vulnerable House districts held by Democrats and fifteen of the most vulnerable House districts held by Republicans.

"And the Republican districts are more vulnerable to Democratic challengers than the Democrat districts are to Republican challengers," said Greenberg, with whom I was on a panel on President Obama’s first 100 days that was hosted by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Greenberg explained to me that in what he called "the battleground districts," Republicans "are still on the defense on issues where they should be making gains — notably the economy." The man who has handled polling for President Bill Clinton as well as foreign leaders such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair underscored this point during the panel we were on, when he said he was "continually amazed" to meet Republicans who won’t acknowledged that the deficit mushroomed dramatically under President George W. Bush.

If the trend continues the way it now is in his polls, Greenberg predicted, "the 2010 midterm elections could be a repeated on 1934 — when Democrats made gains in the House and Senate after having made gains in 1930 and ’32. That was the last time either major party gained in congressional races for a third election cycle in a row."