WASHINGTON -- A sparsely populated part of New York state could give Republicans a much-needed taste of victory after several years of electoral setbacks.
Voters in the state's northeastern corner on March 31 will pick a successor to Democratic Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate to fill seat left vacant when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state.
The results are likely to have little effect on Capitol Hill, where Democrats enjoy a 76-seat advantage in the 435-member House of Representatives.
But for Republicans, a win would help turn the page on the painful 2008 election and offer them a glimmer of hope at a time when Democratic President Barack Obama enjoys high approval ratings.
"It would be an indicator that the tide has turned, (that) when we have an equal playing field we can win on an equal playing field," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.
The race features Republican State Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco against Democratic nominated venture capitalist Scott Murphy, who has no background in politics.
A Siena College poll released last Thursday showed Tedisco leading by 4 percentage points, nearly within the poll's margin of error, down from a 12-point lead at the end of February.
A win by Tedisco would help Republicans prove they can win again in the Northeast. The three New York seats currently held by New York Republicans are the only House seats that the party controls in all of New England. A decade ago, Republicans had 17 seats in the region.
The race has been a priority for new party chairman Michael Steele, who has emphasized the need for Republicans to compete in regions where they have lost ground.
A win could buy Steele goodwill with many in the party after a series of gaffes that have angered conservatives and made him fodder for late-night comedy shows.
"One of the things that Chairman Steele has stated is that he wants to be on the offense," said Steele spokesman Mike Leavitt.
Steele visited the area in February and his Republican National Committee donated $100,000 to the state party last week. Earlier he gave $1 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which handles House races.
Some observers say it's unusual for a national chairman to take such a prominent role.
The result could take on outsized importance because there is little else happening on the political calendar in 2009, said Republican insider Ron Kaufman.
"It's smart for us as a party to put emphasis on it - if we win. If not, it's not particularly," Kaufman said.
Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the largely rural district, which straddles the upper reaches of the Hudson River. But observers say the partisan gap is narrowing as Democratic-leaning voters move out from the New York City suburbs. The district voted for Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 but Obama carried it in 2008.
Political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg rates the congressional race a toss-up. "It's very important for Republicans psychologically to win back a seat that leans Republican," he said. "They're trying to turn things around and you don't turn things around if you keep losing."
Republicans have tried to tie Murphy to unpopular governor David Paterson and targeted his business record. Democrats have hammered Tedisco for refusing to say whether he would have voted for the $787 billion stimulus package recently signed into law.
© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved