When the 6,000 absentee votes are counted in the next week, Republican State Assemblyman Jim Tedesco might emerge the winner over Democrat Scott Murphy in the race to fill Kirsten Gillibrand’s upstate New York House seat. But make no mistake about it: Murphy’s election night edge of 65 is a vote of confidence for President Barack Obama and his economic program. It means the coming struggle for passage of his budget will be a little easier than it might have been.

Special elections in the first year of a new president are important because the parties turn them into national referenda. And this election was no exception. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for Murphy in the closing weeks; Murphy, who was relatively unknown in the district, based his campaign largely on his support for and Tedesco’s opposition to Obama’s stimulus plan.  

In the first month of the campaign, Murphy, a businessman from Missouri who recently moved to the district, trailed Tedesco--and since Republicans boast a 70,000 voter edge in registration, he should not have been able to catch him. But based on a campaign that emphasized his support for Obama, he did catch up and on election night surpassed him.

Murphy’s election night edge doesn’t suggest that the Democrats will romp in 2010. Too many things can happen in the meantime. But if Murphy had lost by a significant margin--say 56 to 44 percent--it would have shown that within a district that Obama carried in 2008, there was a significant undercurrent of discontent with his presidency and his policies. That would have emboldened Obama’s opponents.  

Compare what happened after Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential victory and Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Both Carter and Clinton entered the presidency with big majorities in Congress and expected to pass their ambitious agendas. But defeats in special elections in their first year showed underlying discontent with their presidencies and slowed their momentum. In 1977,  Republicans turned over three Democratic seats in special House elections in Louisiana, Washington, and Minnesota and won the Virginia governorship in November. That was a warning sign to Carter and a green light to Republicans to block his programs, which they proceeded to do.

In 1993, six months after Clinton had been sworn in, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison won easily--she got 67 percent--in a special election to fill the senate seat vacated by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Clinton had lost Texas by only three percent in November. Democrats would subsequently lose gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey that November. These defeats encouraged Republicans to give Clinton hell, which led to the Democratic debacle in 1994.

Murphy’s election night edge is going to give Obama’s Republican opponents--and perhaps some of his Democratic doubters--pause before they try to block his budget. Obama's not home free, but he and his administration can breathe a little easier.

--John B. Judis