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A Referendum On Obama In New York?

Ethan Porter is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

In this morning's Wall Street Journal, pundit John Fund reports from upstate New York, where he describes the race to fill Kirstin Gillibrand's seat as the "first gauge of President Barack Obama's early days." Fund joins a chorus of Republican apparatchiks and right-wing scribes who yearn to view every passing day as a national evaluation of Obama's popularity. The special election in New York's twentieth Congressional district, which pits Democrat Scott Murphy against Republican Jim Tedisco, is a "referendum" on the president, says Fund. For confirmation, he turns to none other than K.T. McFarland, the tabloid-grabbing Republican who tried to run against Hillary Clinton in 2006. (During that race, McFarland claimed that Clinton was spying on her via helicopter and had pried into her bedroom.) McFarland predicts a Republican victory tomorrow because of voter concern about Obama "overreach." 

The reality is that the results of tomorrow's election will reflect very little about popular opinion of this administration. Yes, national issues have intruded; the Democrats are blanketing the district with campaign paraphernalia tying Tedisco to Rush Limbaugh, and Tedisco has hammered Murphy for supporting the stimulus package. But this is a local race, in a district that's trended blue only very recently, and somewhat by accident. "Murphy should lose, given the constitution of the district," says Jonathan Becker, a long-time observer of district politics and a political science professor at Bard College.

Before the 2006 election, Republicans maintained a 15 percent enrollment advantage, and Gillibrand managed to unseat incumbent John Sweeney only after a police report surfaced showing 911 had once received a domestic violence complaint from his wife. Even after that, Gillibrand just squeaked by. Her victory was in large part owed to her ferocious campaigning skills; even in her first race, she had the aplomb and tenacity of a veteran politician. She only beat her 2008 opponent after developing a reputation as a star-in-the-making and building a formidable political machine. And even then, there were still about 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district.

What's surprising is that Murphy, a political novice who made his fortune in venture capital--not exactly a winner right now--is even competitive. Before Gillibrand, the party made a habit of nominating similarly long bets. Who can ever forget Doris Kelly, the lovely but hopeless 2004 nominee who spoke in barely audible tones, as if she were running for local librarian instead of national office? Well, most people, apparently: Kelly lost to Sweeney by nearly 30 points.

Less than five years later, another middling Democrat is running neck and neck with a Republican. But its tightness reflects little on the Obama administration, and more on the newly competitive nature of the district.

--Ethan Porter

Image courtesy of Susan Walsh/Associated Press