Democrats have a nice little freeroll going in New York’s 20th Congressional district special election scheduled for two weeks from today, March 31. Although it is currently a D-held seat, having been picked up in 2006 by Kirsten Gillibrand as part of the first wave year gains, Republicans hold enough of a registration edge in the upstate New York region (roughly 196,000 to 125,000) that the seat is favored to flip back to Republicans.
The March 31 race pits Republican Jim Tedisco against Democrat Scott Murphy, and Democrats will come out of the special election with either of a 78-seat or 80-seat edge in the House. Functionally, considering House rules that give the majority party far more control than in the Senate, there are no broader consequences for House Democratic ability to determine the national agenda.
However, if Murphy upsets Tedisco, Michael Steele is in big trouble, as we reported recently. Regardless of his public behavior, Steele’s primary function as RNC chair is to fundraise and organize for races like this. Although much was made of Steele directing $1 million to each of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), our sources reported that former chairman Mike Duncan had had $5 million earmarked for those committees, and The Hill reported that Duncan had written out checks of $3 million to each committee that Steele ultimately slashed. Regardless of the precise discrepancy between Steele’s allocation and what the committees would have received under other leadership, what matters in all of this is how RNC members perceive Steele’s fundraising, since they are the ones who would have to take action to replace Steele. What’s clear is that the insiders understand that Steele has dropped the ball in this race, which is why we wrote that regardless of whether Tedisco ultimately wins or not, Steele will not get credit.
Right now, there’s something to like for both candidates in NY-20. Tedisco can enjoy the fact that he’s held the lead in each poll of the race and is a better-known candidate; Murphy can like the trendlines.
Indeed, a Republican internal poll in early February showed the race at 50-29, just after Murphy became the Democratic nominee. A couple weeks later, the independent Siena poll taken Feb 18-19 showed Tedisco up 46-34, and last Thursday Siena showed the race had narrowed to 45-41.
Although Tedisco’s numbers are essentially unchanged from two weeks prior in the Siena poll, Murphy’s name recognition may be catching up. Tedisco is certainly reacting like a candidate who’s very upset with what he’s seen. As the 4-point poll was released, he publicly disowned RNCC advertising and promised to show voters “the real Jim,” presumably a version of himself that would earn and hold, say, a 10-point lead. He also finally took a stance against the stimulus bill, recognizing that his unwillingness to commit publicly was partly responsible for the closing polls.
That choice – to stand against the stimulus – comes in likely recognition of the contours of special elections: much lower turnout and more base voters.
Gillibrand, a popular figure in the district, has cut an ad supporting Murphy, and Thursday will bring the first filings that show how much money has been spent in the race.
We’ll also know shortly whether Tedisco has stopped the bleeding and reversed the tightening polls. If it comes down to a tossup, factors like libertarian support for 3d-party candidate Eric Sundwall and ground game come into play.