On paper at least, retaking the Congressional seat in New York should have been a chip shot for the GOP. The last Republican, Congressman John Sweeney, only lost the seat when his opponent Kirsten Gillibrand obtained confidential New York State Police documents and used them to smear Sweeney. It was widely thought that New York Governor George Pataki had slipped Gillibrand the documents when Pataki and Sweeney fell out over intra-party matters with Sweeney objecting to Pataki’s shift to the left.
In fact, the geography of the district was specially drawn for Sweeney and the Republicans by powerful State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, an ally of Sweeney, in the last Congressional redistricting. The District includes the tony suburbs of Albany but only skirts the city before stretching all the way through central New York to the tip of the Mid-Hudson Valley.
With the 75,000-Republican voter registration edge, it would seem that the Republicans would easily reclaim this seat when it was vacated. But recent elections show that the district was carried by Obama, Schumer and Clinton. Polling showed both President Obama and his pork laden stimulus bill to be popular in the District.
When Governor Paterson appointed Congresswoman Gillibrand to the Senate vacancy caused by Hillary Clinton’s resignation to become Secretary of State, the governor called a snap special election. Republicans nominated a potentially strong candidate in Jim Tedisco, a solid conservative who served as Minority Leader of the State Assembly and thus was fairly known in the suburban Albany part of the district.
Tedisco’s nomination over former Assemblyman John Faso, who was the Republican candidate for Governor in 2006, and State Senator Betty Little was engineered by GOP State chief Joe Mondello, although Tedisco lived just outside the District.
Tedisco, a local college basketball star, has been a consistent critic of New York’s runaway spending and borrowing and had dogged political style as the only conservative in state leadership. It was Tedisco who led the opposition to Governor Eliot Spitzer’s naïve plan to give driver’s licenses – government issued picture IDs – to illegal immigrants.
The Democrats nominated Scott Murphy, a Democratic fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, who had made modest millions on Wall Street and spent time in Indiana working for that state’s democratic governor. Murphy is tall and telegenic. More importantly, the businessman had a long business track record but little record on tax or spending issues.
Republican National Chairman Michael Steele declared the race a “top priority” but in the end contributed only $300,000 to the effort. For the first time, Democrats outraised Republicans for a special congressional election with Murphy raising almost $1 million more than Tedisco. While pro-Tedisco groups spent $2.1 Million, pro-Murphy groups spent only $1.2- making spending by both sides roughly equal.
Murphy’s fundraising juggernaut was assisted by former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Governor David Paterson, Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top operatives from the Democratic congressional campaign committee. These leading democrats picked up the phone to high dollar donors, collecting $1 million more than the Republicans.
The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee weighed into the race with harsh negative ads blasting Murphy for being partners in a company which had outsourced some jobs to India. Despite heavy spending by the NRCC, there is little evidence that voters cared or held it against Murphy.
Tedisco stumbled when he attempted to finesse a question about whether he would have voted for or against President Obama’s stimulus bill. When the Minority Leader refused to take a position, Murphy effectively blasted him as a “waffler” while Republicans refused to rally to Tedisco’s side. A poll thirty days before the election showed that eight out of ten Democrats were supporting Murphy while only 6 out of 10 Republicans were supporting Tedisco. It also showed independents and moderate Republicans drifting to Murphy because they saw Tedisco as a “waffling politician.”
Murphy surged ahead in the race and probably would have won comfortably but for public outrage over the AIG bailout package which Murphy had said on his campaign website he would have voted for. Tedisco went on the attack. The National Republican Trust, an independent political action committee, began airing a TV commercial picking up Tedisco’s attack on Murphy over the AIG issue. Helping their cause was the fact that Murphy himself had paid fat bonuses to employees at of one of his failing companies at shareholders’ expense.
At that moment, the National Republican Congressional Committee began airing television commercials attacking Murphy for opposing the death penalty for terrorists, based on a radio interview Murphy had done on influential New York Post political reporter Fred Dicker’s radio show. While a vast majority of voters favor the death penalty for terrorists, the ad seemed like Bush – Cheney type deflection away from the economic issues which made terrorism irrelevant, but the mixed messages confused voters at a time that overnight polling showed Tedisco on the rebound and closing fast.
Murphy had the support of the New York State Working Families Party, which is essentially a front sponsored by big labor to provide money and manpower to liberal and leftist candidates they support. The State Chairman of the WFP sits on the board of ACORN, the notorious community voter organization that has been connected to voter fraud and other illegal Election Day high jinks in numerous states in 2008. The Working Families Party isn’t about working, has nothing to do with families and isn’t really a party. The Murphy campaign coordinated carefully with the WFP to conduct an aggressive door-to-door canvass to identify Murphy supporters.
Murphy, noting Gillibrand’s 100% National Rifle Association voting record, quietly mailed any voter with a gun permit or hunting license a last minute letter reaffirming his support for Second Amendment rights. Of course, the mail piece was mailed to arrive the day before the election, too late for Murphy’s more liberal supporters to learn about it and take offense. Tedisco made no effort in the District’s large and influential gun-owning community.
Union money poured into the District and the Tedisco campaign would have been outspent almost two to one on Albany television but for the efforts of the National Republican Trust which spent toe to toe with Murphy and pounded the Wall Street millionaire on the AIG bailout issue.
Election Day came and provided a photo finish. The lead seesawed between Tedisco and Murphy first for days, then for weeks. When Murphy picked up additional votes in the recounts of Greene and Columbia County, everyone waited with bated breath for the Republican stronghold of Saratoga County to report its final totals. Although Tedisco won Saratoga 58-42, the final tally put him 477 votes behind and the veteran pol threw in the towel and conceded.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the loss of a seat with this kind of Republican voter registration advantage. With the Republican National Committee under Michael Steele and the National Republican Congressional Committee now essentially under the control of one Republican political consultant, their joint effort must be panned as a failure. Their harsh negative ads against Murphy for creating jobs in India and opposing the death penalty for terrorists had little impact on Murphy’s rise when the voters principal focus was on the economy and the need for jobs.
Who advised Tedisco not to slam the Obama stimulus bill remains a mystery. Whether that was the advice of national party operatives looking at polls showing Obama popular in the District or whether the veteran conservative lawmaker decided to hedge on his own isn’t known but the misstep on so fundamental an issue hurt him badly.
Likewise, credit must be given to Tedisco for grabbing the AIG issue and rebounding to an essential tie; if the election had been held ten days earlier he might have lost by as much as four points. Nor can Tedisco be blamed for a half-hearted effort. He campaigned hard and effectively.
Sadly, Tedisco’s loss is just part of a larger story about the large decline of the New York State Republican Party. Under Governor George Pataki, the Party lost crucial county executive races on Long Island and in the New York suburbs as Republican registration edges in upstate New York consistently shrank with the decline of the population.
Today, the New York GOP, which produced two time presidential nominee Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Republican presidential contender and Vice President Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and three term Republican Governor George Pataki, holds no statewide offices and, other than former Mayor Rudy Giuliani who’s run is unlikely, has no strong potential candidate for governor.
Jim Tedisco’s loss in the 20th District is just another step in the decline of the once-mighty New York Republican Party.
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