The Race to Watch Today

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Voters in the New York’s Hudson Valley go to the polls today to select a replacement for former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. On the ballot are a former Wall Street type and a long entrenched Albany populist pol – a guy who has often enjoyed the support of unions in his career. In what is surely a sign of the changing faces of both parties, the pol is the Republican and the Wall Street type, the Democrat.

The Dem, Scott Murphy, 39, is a Harvard-educated venture capitalist originally from Missouri who moved to the district three years ago. If he wins he’s already said he’d like to join the moderate Blue Dog caucus. The Republican is James Tedisco, 58, the New York State Assembly minority leader who last year drew then Governor Elliot Spitzer’s ire when he blocked Spitzer’s attempt to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. “Ultimately, this race is about a choice between Wall Street and Main Street,” says Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which helps elect House Republicans. “Scott Murphy personifies everything that has gone wrong with our economy, while Jim Tedisco has made a career out of taking on powerful interests and fighting for the middle class.”

If this election had been held in last year, the narrative in this district that Obama won with 51% of the vote would’ve likely been change versus experience — the fresh faced reformer versus the insider. But a lot has changed since November so the debate has focused on the stimulus bill. Tedisco, who for a month avoided taking a position on the bill, came out against it in the wake of the AIG bonuses. Now, the meme is that the race has become a referendum on Obama’s first 60 days in office – a bit of a stretch, though it is odd that Obama chose not to wade into this race until last week when he finally endorsed Murphy and sent out two emails to 60,000 of his supporters living in the area. The Democratic National Committee also produced a $10,000 tv ad last week entitled “Obama Endorses Murphy” that’s now up and running on Albany stations. That said, Dems have invested much less in the race:

DCCC $591,591
DNC $10,000
AFSCME $72,563
Planned Parenthood $5,000
SEIU $546,920
Total: $1,226,074

NRCC $817,681
HUCK PAC $1,155
National Republican Trust PAC $779,306
Our Country Deserves Better PAC $156,407
National Right to Life $22,358
RNC (transfer down & 441) $280,000
Total: $2,056,907

Individually, the two are pretty evenly matched. As of March, Murphy had raised $1,149,161 just 51% of that from New Yorkers while Tedisco has raised $1,036,612, 85% instate, according to CQ political money line.

Cynics say Obama avoided until the last minute staking his name on a race that is too close to call, though others argue that Obama spending time campaigning in a divisive race would’ve been counter productive to his bipartisan outreach and the image that he’s actually pretty swamped what with the economy and two wars. Whether it was Murphy surging on his own mojo or fortuitous timing, in the wake of Obama’s endorsement Murphy pulled ahead of Tedisco 47% to 43% in a poll by the Siena Research Institute. The same group had Tedisco up by four points, 45% to 41% earlier this month and ahead by 12 percentage points 46% to 34% in February. “The trajectory of this race has turned towards Scott Murphy because he represents the type of change people are looking for,” says Brad Woodhouse, a DNC spokesman. “That this race is as close as it is in a district that leans heavily Republican just proves that the President’s approach to getting our economy moving again, an approach Scott Murphy has embraced, has broad support.”

For all that Gillibrand won reelection in November with 62% of the vote, registration heavily favors Republicans and until Gillibrand – a pro-gun moderate – this was a safe GOP seat. The district, which went for George W. Bush by 54% in 2000 and 51% in 2001, is rated R+3 by the Cook Political Report. Some argue the PR disaster would be worse for the GOP if they lose this seat because it means that none of their attacks on Obama and congressional Dems have gained traction and they still have yet to find a formula to get them back into the northeast where they are rapidly becoming an endangered species.

The race is too close to call, and special elections have never been known for their turnout. But whomever wins both national parties are sure to claim victory tonight as an endorsement or repudiation of Obama’s performance thus far.

A dispatch from Michael Scherer aboard AF1. White house Spokesman Robert Gibbs, who is busily lowering expectations:
Republicans have a significant voter registration advantage – 71,000 more voters are registered Republicans than are registered Democrats.
Kirsten Gillibrand was the first Democrat to hold NY20 in 28 years when she upset then-Representative John Sweeney in 2006.  Sweeney faced significant ethical issues.
Even though Obama won the district in 2008, it had previously been solidly Republican. President Bush won NY20 in both 2000 and 2004. In fact, NY20 was one of only six districts in New York State voting for President Bush in 2000, and one of only nine supporting him in 2004.