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Dead Heat in NY Congressional Race, But Obama Undermined

By    |   Tuesday, 31 March 2009 12:00 PM EDT

The two candidates in a New York congressional special election seen as a referendum on President Barack Obama's spending plans were separated by 65 votes with thousands of absentee ballots remaining to be counted.

With all 610 voting precincts in the 20th Congressional District reporting, Democrat Scott Murphy led Republican Jim Tedisco 77,344 votes to 77,279 Tuesday in the race to replace Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.

More than 10,000 absentee ballots had been issued, and about 6,000 were returned by Tuesday, none of which was to be counted Tuesday night, according to state elections officials.

New York agreed to count overseas absentee ballots until April 13 — instead of the initial April 7 cutoff — after the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state for not giving overseas absentee voters enough time to return ballots.

The election, though, seemed to produce one clear loser: President Barack Obama.

The election battle between veteran GOP assemblyman Tedisco and Democratic upstart Murphy has been portrayed as a major political bellwether.

But observers suggest that the Democrat should have carried the swing congressional district easily, backed as he was by an incumbent president with a 60-percent-plus approval rating during his honeymoon period in a district Obama himself carried in November.

The 20th District vacancy opened when the popular Gillibrand was tapped to fill the Senate seat Hillary Clinton left when she became Obama’s secretary of state.

Though the district showed a marginal advantage favoring Republicans in registration, the district has been a solid winner for Democrats in recent years.

In 2008, Gillibrand trounced her Republican opponent by 14 percentage points. Gillibrand strongly backed Murphy. In the presidential race, Obama handily defeated Republican John McCain in the district.

“Some have called this a traditional Republican district. I think a fairer way to look at this district is as a classic swing vote district,” Siena College pollster Steven pollster Greenberg tells Newsmax.

Despite having been a veteran politician in a portion of the district, Tedisco ran his campaign as an underdog, slamming Murphy for his venture capitalist ties to Wall Street, and for his support for the $787 billion stimulus package that allowed $165 million in bonuses to go out the door to AIG executives.

"The last thing we need [in Washington] is a rubber stamp," Tedisco warned voters in one recent campaign stop. "It's been kind of a shopping spree, it seems."

Murphy, on the other hand, has portrayed Tedisco as a typical Albany politico. And despite his status as a relative unknown, Murphy rapidly made up the gap with Tedisco.

The stakes are high, with the contest widely cited as an early measure of Obama’s ability to sustain his popularity and translate it into political success.

Obama had given Murphy a strong endorsement, twice sending messages to his Organizing for America e-mail list developed during the presidential campaign.

Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to help, and voiced a radio commercial backing Murphy that aired during the closing days of the race.

"Given that this is a swing district, this is as a good a referendum on Obama's early days and the lack of a GOP program as one might find," Bruce Berg, a Fordham University political scientist recently told the Los Angeles Times.

If Democrat Murphy is able to pull out a victory, it could prove a major embarrassment to Republican leaders who placed big financial bets on Tedisco.

The RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee together contributed close to $1 million to Tedisco’s campaign, compared with about $380,000 flowing into Murphy’s coffers from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the DNC. Murphy, a wealthy businessman, contributed close to $1 million to his own campaign coffers.

A defeat also could spell serious political trouble for RNC chairman Michael Steele, who personally campaigned in the district twice on Tedisco’s behalf and identified the race as an opportunity to stanch the bleeding from a series of major Republican setbacks on the national level.

GOP leadersappeared to be lowering expectations this week, presumably to minimize the frustrations that would result if Tedisco doesn’t emerge victorious.

House Minority Leader John Boehner told the media this week that the race doesn’t have national significance after all.

“It’s between those two candidates in New York,” Boehner said. “I hope Jim Tedisco wins.”

A Murphy upset would give Democrats an opportunity to hand Republicans yet another setback, one in a district that only a few weeks ago appeared to be a virtual lock for the GOP. While a Republican victory could breathe hope into a party that has struggled to find the voice it needs to compete with a popular Democratic president.

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The two candidates in a New York congressional special election seen as a referendum on President Barack Obama's spending plans were separated by 65 votes with thousands of absentee ballots remaining to be counted.With all 610 voting precincts in the 20th Congressional...
Tuesday, 31 March 2009 12:00 PM
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