New York Special Election A Close Vote On Stimulus, AIG Bonuses — And Obama

The race is coming down to the wire in Tuesday’s special election to pick a replacement in Kirsten Gillibrand’s old House seat. It’s too early to know for sure — special elections are naturally hard to poll or predict, because of the low and uneven turnout patterns — but it now appears that Democratic candidate Scott Murphy may be the slight favorite in a race that many observers (and participants) expected would be tough to hold.

As noted before, Democratic candidate Scott Murphy now holds a 47%-43% lead in the latest Siena poll, after having started the race 12 points down with no name recognition. But now, he may well be the slight favorite in the race.

Essentially, the race has turned into a referendum on a cluster of issues: President Obama’s popularity in a swing district, the stimulus plan, and the Republican position that the AIG bonuses were all the Dems’ fault.In the last few days, the White House has puts its own brand on the line. President Obama sent out an e-mail to his supporters in and around the district, formally endorsing Murphy; Joe Biden recorded a radio ad for Murphy; and now the DNC is running a TV ad reminding voters that Obama supports Murphy. Meanwhile, Tedisco and the GOP have been running a populist campaign charging that Murphy, a businessman, supports the AIG bonuses based on the failure of the stimulus bill to retroactively regulate executive pay.

Throughout this race, Republican sources have been optimistic, but not overly so. They’ve never seen it as a slam dunk. And Democrats have known this would be a tough race, given Tedisco’s initial advantage in name recognition (he’s the state Assembly minority leader, while Murphy is a venture capitalist and first-time candidate) and the GOP’s lead in voter registration. But they also believed it was winnable if things went just right.

This seat was long a GOP stronghold. George W. Bush carried it in both 2000 and 2004. And the district has a GOP advantage in voter registration. But then something funny happened. In 2006, Kirsten Gillibrand defeated Republican incumbent John Sweeney. And not only was Gillibrand easily re-elected in 2008, against a big-spending opponent, but Barack Obama narrowly carried the district for president, too. So even though it’s a GOP district on paper, it clearly has learned how to vote for Democrats.

The national Republicans very quickly put a lot of resources into this race, with Michael Steele’s RNC transferring $200,000 to the state GOP for the race, in the hopes of picking up a seat from the Dems just two months into President Obama’s term. And if that occurs it will surely be viewed by the national media and party fundraisers as a sign of a GOP resurgence, in the wake of their catastrophic losses in 2006 and 2008. By contrast, the DNC only transferred $5,000 to the state Dems, plus the maximum of $5,000 to Murphy, and a $10,000 ad expenditure yesterday.

The same spending imbalance has shown up with the House campaign committees. As of a week ago, the NRCC had spent $552,532.10, and since then they’ve spent an additional $265,149. As of a week ago, the DCCC had spent $351,557.59, which has since increased by $222,796.19.

But in the last few days, we’ve seen that direct injection of the White House’s own brand into the race, at the same time as Murphy has caught up and perhaps even overtaken Tedisco. The question now is whether Obama’s massive popularity — he has 65% favorables in the district, according to the Siena poll — will be enough to put Murphy over the finish line in a district that was off-limits to Dems until just a few years ago.