Obama Agenda Faces Early Electoral Test

Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco square off for House seat.

March 30, 2009, 11:06 AM

March 30, 2009 -- Tuesday's special election in upstate New York to fill the House seat vacated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is quickly turning into a referendum on President Obama's stewardship of the economy.

The Democratic candidate, venture capitalist Scott Murphy, has embraced Obama's economic stimulus package and is attacking his opponent, Republican Assembly Leader Jim Tedisco, for opposing it. Tedisco is fighting back by hammering Murphy for not reading the stimulus bill closely enough to realize it included language that retroactively protected bonuses for executives of companies like American International Group, which accepted taxpayer bailout money.

"There's no question that the issue of the stimulus and AIG bonuses has swallowed whole the fight between" Tedisco and Murphy, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes congressional elections.

The White House was initially keeping its distance but steadily increased its involvement last week, perhaps, some analysts believe, after concluding that Tuesday's outcome will be viewed through an Obama prism whether or not the president goes to bat for the Democratic candidate.

Obama's first step into the contest came Tuesday, when he e-mailed a personal endorsement of Murphy to 60,000 of his supporters who live in and around New York's 20th Congressional District.

"Scott has the kind of experience and background we desperately need right now in Washington," wrote Obama. "He's created jobs by building and growing small businesses while bringing people together to address difficult challenges. He supports the economic recovery plan we've put in place, and I know we can count on him as an ally for change."

Vice President Joe Biden entered the fray Wednesday, cutting a radio ad for Murphy that plays up ties the vice president forged to the region while he was in law school. "As a graduate of Syracuse Law School, I not only root for the orange, I root for upstate New York as well," Biden says in the ad. "That's why this special election you'll be holding next Tuesday, March 31, is so important to me. I'm supporting Scott Murphy for Congress, and so is President Obama."

In a last-minute push for Murphy, the New York Democratic Party confirmed on Monday that it sent a mailer to voters which seeks to tie Tedisco to former President George W. Bush, Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska, and conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Ad Touts Obama Endorsement

Obama, who carried the district over John McCain by three points last year, stepped up his involvement in the race March 26 when the Democratic National Committee launched a television ad that touts the president's endorsement of Murphy.

"In the worst recession in a generation, upstate New Yorkers deserve someone with the right skills to represent them in Washington," the ad says. "That's why President Obama is supporting Scott Murphy for Congress."

While the White House is putting its political reputation on the line in Tuesday's special election, the stakes are equally high -- if not higher -- for Republicans who are still trying to recover from the drubbing they took at the polls in 2006 and 2008.

Although the seat was most recently represented by Gillibrand, a moderate Democrat who was chosen to fill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vacant Senate seat, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by 70,000 in the district.

Democratic hopes of holding the seat were buoyed Friday by a Siena Research Institute poll that showed Murphy surging. In the poll of 917 "likely voters," 47 percent supported Murphy and 43 percent Tedisco. Two weeks ago, a Siena poll showed Tedisco with a four point lead -- 45 percent to Murphy's 41 percent.

The poll, like others that have been taken in the race, is within the margin of error, a point that Tedisco was quick to note in a Friday statement to reporters. It is also worth noting that special election polling is especially difficult, given the customary low voter turnout.

But the Murphy camp remains confident. "Our thousands of grass-roots supporters are fired up and ready to go spread Scott's message of partnering with President Obama and Sen. Gillibrand to put people back to work and lead us out of the current economic crisis," said Murphy spokesman Ryan Rudominer.

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