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New York State Election Carries National Implications

March 31, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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A special election was held in New York state Tuesday to fill the state legislative seat vacated by now-U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg explains the national implications of the race.

GWEN IFILL: When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, it set off a political chain reaction. Kirsten Gillibrand became the junior senator from New York, and the fight for her old congressional seat has now become a test case for President Obama’s economic policies.

Voters went to the polls in New York today. Joining us to explain the national implications of this local race is Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Welcome, Stu.

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So let’s get this straight. The Republican is Jim Tedisco.


GWEN IFILL: The Democrat is Scott Murphy. And why do we care?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, there are a number of reasons we care. In part, the race has become a referendum on jobs and the stimulus package, and President Obama has been brought into this race.

But more than that, in terms of the outcome, if the Republicans lose this special election, I think they will be further depressed, further concerned about their future prospects, and Democrats will be further emboldened.

So to some extent, the race is about what it’s about. Is it about the candidates? Is it about President Obama and jobs? But part of this is also about the future. How do the parties exit this special election as they point towards 2009 elections and 2010?

District is complex

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about this district. Is it a district that leans Republican, leans Democrat? We know that Kirsten Gillibrand was a Democrat, but -- is a Democrat, but we wonder whether this really is something which is up for grabs.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, this has turned out to be a sort of confusing question. We all thought we knew what kind of district it was. It has a 70,000 Republican voter registration, and it traditionally has been a Republican district. It stretches from Dutchess County, north of New York City, all the way up to Lake Placid and then across -- a southern arm reaches out toward Binghamton.

It is generally regarded as a lean Republican district, although, as you pointed out, Kirsten Gillibrand won it two years ago in 2006 narrowly and then much more overwhelmingly, over 60 percent, last time, and Barack Obama won it, carried it with 51 percent.

So recently the district has voted for Democrats, although, if you look at state legislators, state senators, and the long-term trends in the district, it seems to be a Republican district. So we're kind of confused at the moment as to what it really is.

Republicans are worried

GWEN IFILL: So the latest polls have this as a dead heat, yet we saw in this final week of the campaign there President Obama's image was used in the Democrats' ads. Does that help or hurt in this kind of a tipping-point race?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, so far, it looks like it is helping him. Interestingly, the Republicans started off trying to make this a very local race. They had a local political figure, have a local political figure, Jim Tedisco, born in Schenectady, went to college in Schenectady, is a coach and teacher in the area, was elected very young, in his late 20s, to the Schenectady City Council.

I should point out that Schenectady is not in the congressional district, but it's in the general area. And then he was elected to the New York State Assembly, so he's a local politician, been around. He's got that ethnic New York accent.

And the Democrats have a 38-year-old businessman from Missouri who has moved to the district only within the last three years, although his wife's family has lived in the northern part of the district for many years, and then he went to work for Wall Street, Scott Murphy, and he worked for a couple of Democratic governors in Missouri.

So the Republicans figured, "We've got a great contrast with a local guy here versus their guy from Missouri, from Harvard. He just won't fit." And the Tedisco ads all started, "Jim Tedisco, he's one of us."

But what the Democrats succeeded in doing is making this about the stimulus bill, and jobs, and change, and President Obama still has wonderful job approval numbers in this district.

And Republicans are telling me now they're really worried. It almost seems as though these voters -- who have voted for Gillibrand and Obama, remember, within the last couple of years -- still want to give Barack Obama some more time and voting for Murphy is a way of sending that message. And so it is very possible that the president is going to be a big factor here.

Tendency to look ahead

GWEN IFILL: Tedisco tried to tie Murphy to his support of the stimulus package and therefore implied support for these very unpopular AIG bonuses. How well has that gone over?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, Republicans are hoping that, in the final week here, this has really turned the race. And I spoke to a Republican strategist who said, well, they've seen some numbers suggesting that the interjecting AIG and trying to stigmatize Murphy as supporting bonuses not just at AIG, because he supported the stimulus package, but as a businessman for -- he was on the board of a company that lost money and yet gave bonuses, so they're trying to tie him to this, but they're not sure it's working.

It is the Republicans' attempt to bring a national issue into this race. They saw that Barack Obama became a national factor helping the Democrats. They're hoping that this late-breaking issue is going to help them.

GWEN IFILL: Is it too soon to look ahead to 2010 and actually try to read something into this outcome?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I think it is. And I think people will want to do that, and that's a mistake.

Look, we're only five months from the November elections. And what we're seeing here is that the voters in this district haven't entirely turned the page on November of 2008, but that doesn't mean we know what the environment is going to be in the end of 2009 or 2010.

And if the president's numbers start to fall, if there's more controversy, if he doesn't appear to be successful, then we'll be in a fundamentally different environment. And if that was the case right now, the Republicans would win this district.

I think -- normally in these special elections, what you have is the voters say, "Boy, we want to send somebody to Washington to kind of check the president." Right now, voters in the district don't seem to want to check Barack Obama; they're perfectly comfortable with him.

Gillibrand endorsed Murphy

GWEN IFILL: And there's also the factor of Kirsten Gillibrand herself. She's a new senator. We haven't heard that much from her yet, but does she have a big impact in who gets to -- a big say, I guess, in who gets to replace her?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, she has cut a television commercial for Scott Murphy, and her favorable ratings in this district are in a poll that I saw in the mid-70s. She is extremely well-liked, regarded as a moderate Democrat. Murphy is trying to run in her image as a moderate Democrat. And so far he seems to be doing that.

He's really holding a lot of the Gillibrand-Obama voters from November. And so I think she is turning out to be a factor, but he's run a good campaign. The Democrats have run a good campaign, and they had a really good strategy.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Stu Rothenberg, the Rothenberg Political Report, thanks a lot.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Sure. Thanks, Gwen.