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A Poor Republican Performance In Upstate New York

A Poor Republican Performance In Upstate New York

By Jay Cost and Sean Trende - April 1, 2009

Congress-watchers who were hoping to write a piece on the final outcome of the special election in now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's upstate New York district are going to have to wait. With

all the precincts in and about 6,000 absentee votes outstanding, first-time Democratic candidate Scott Murphy holds a 65-vote lead over Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco. Absentee ballots will not be counted immediately, and there may be court challenges. We will not know the identity of the winner until mid-April at the earliest.

But in reality, the winner of the seat itself was never that important. With over 250 Democrats in the lower chamber either way, Obama's agenda is not likely to be thwarted by a single vote (though it is possible). An eventual win could give the Republicans a much-needed morale boost, but these boosts tend to dissipate quickly.

While the outcome of the election may not be terribly important in terms of which member eventually gets to vote in Congress, there may be some more general observations we can make. Does the election tell us anything about the state of the GOP and the upcoming midterm elections?

To the extent that we can read any tea leaves from a special election result, it probably doesn't really matter whether the result is a 65-vote win for the Republican or for the Democrat. It matters for the roll call vote, but not for assessing the present strength of the parties, so we can probably make these observations now. And the tea leaves we can see from either a narrow Republican win or a narrow Republican loss in this district aren't particularly good for Republicans. The parties battled to a draw here, but a draw is still an underperformance for Republicans.

At the outset, I should note that Charlie Cook has ably made the case that you cannot read much into this special election, absent a blowout either way. There is much wisdom in this argument. Special elections are not necessarily harbingers of things to come. To use my favorite example, in 1978, Republicans picked up a district on Manhattan that had given Jimmy Carter 63% of the vote in 1976. They then enjoyed a fairly unspectacular midterm election.

On the other hand, while a strong performance in competitive special elections may not be sufficient evidence for properly inferring that a party is about to have a good midterm, it may be a necessary precondition. This makes sense - if a party is going to sweep competitive House seats in the general election, one would expect it to perform well in the by-elections. Strong Democratic performances in various special elections from 2005-2008 and 1973-1974 presaged very good Democratic years. Republicans had good special election performances in 1993-1994 and 1979-1980. This is a small number of observations, but the trend is there.

To be clear, this is a district the Republicans probably should have won with room to spare, even in a mediocre Republican year. Even though Obama did carry it narrowly last fall, he did so by less than his national average, much like Reagan narrowly carried a majority of Massachusetts congressional districts in 1984.

Republicans do have a registration advantage, but that is not determinative. After all, Kentucky is one of the most solidly Democratic states in the nation by registration.

Far more damning is that Republicans represent nearly all of the district at the state level. It is kind of an inversion of MS-01, which leans heavily Republican at the national level, but is much more competitive for more localized elections. This is still a Republican-leaning district, and it is exactly the type of district Republicans will have to win if they are going to be competitive in 2010.

Even worse, it appears the Republicans would have been in worse shape but for the home base of their candidate. In 2006, Gillibrand won the district by about 6 percentage points, meaning that Tedisco needed overperform then-Rep John Sweeney's 2006 performance by four points on average to win.

He managed this in only two counties: Rensselaer and Saratoga counties. In several counties, he actually did worse than Sweeney did while Sweeney was losing by six points. What has kept Tedisco in the race was that Saratoga and neighboring Rensselaer counties are the most populous counties in the district, and most importantly, Saratoga is Tedisco's home base in the state legislature. This suggests that if you remove Tedisco's constituent service base and years of goodwill accumulated in the legislature, you have a wider Democratic win than occurred in 2006, when Gillibrand was challenging a deeply damaged incumbent in a terrible year for the GOP.

There are mitigating factors for Republicans. By all accounts, Tedisco did not run a good campaign. He waffled for weeks on the most critical piece of legislation Congress has considered so far - the stimulus bill. His opponent had no voting record, making him hard to pin an attack on. The NRCC ran ads that were perfect for 2002.

And there is even some good news for Republicans here. Republicans raised over $120,000 for Tedisco online, an area where they had real weakness and a need to improve.

But the brutal truth for Republicans is that, for now, for all of the conversations regarding Barack Obama losing his way, the President remains very popular in the country. A 60% approval rating is still a very solid approval rating. And it is even higher in upstate New York, registering 65% in this district. Unless and until these approval ratings begin to sink, Republicans will continue to have very long election nights in districts that should be called for them as soon as the polls close.

Sean Trende can be contacted at strende@realclearpolitics.com.

Jay Cost and Sean Trende

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