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Republicans Struggle to Spin Special Election Photo Finish

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/03/tedisco-murphy-gil.jpgJim Tedisco announcing his candidacy for Congress (NRCC); Scott Murphy campaigning with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for her former seat (Wikimedia)

Sean Conner, the newly elected chairman of the Washington, D.C. Young Republicans, reacted to the results of the New York 20th Congressional District special election with one long groan.

“Save us!” said Conner. “Save us, God, from another recount!”

Elephant.jpg
Elephant.jpg

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Conner was one of hundreds of Republicans who had phone-banked for Jim Tedisco, the New York Republican assemblyman who had tried–and might yet succeed–at taking back the historically conservative 20th district for the GOP. What had looked one month ago like a clean Republican victory became, as election day drew closer, a bigger and bigger disappointment. At noon on Tuesday, a probable Tedisco loss looked briefly like an upset win, then a defeat, then, possibly, a messy, inconclusive recount. Some Republicans claimed credit for making the race close, but all of them admitted, in one way or another, that the chance for a “Republican comeback” storyline had been lost, delayed until this fall’s state election’s in New Jersey and Virginia.

When Gov. David Paterson (D-N.Y.) appointed Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to the state’s open Senate seat, Republicans spotted a chance to win an election in the northeast, where the GOP’s representation in Congress had been all but wiped out in the 2006 and 2008 Democratic waves. Democrats had tipped their hand by fretting about Paterson’s choice. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) worried in an interview with ABC News that the seat would be expensive to retain. While Republicans made pro forma comments about a tough election in a seat that Gillibrand had won twice, they began the race with three advantages: a deep bench of candidates, a 70,000-voter edge in Republican registration and the sinking political fortunes of Paterson.

Local Republicans quickly settled on Tedisco, the leader of the Republican minority in New York’s state Assembly, to fight the special election set for March 31. Democrats selected Scott Murphy, an investment banker who had political experience but had never himself run for office. In the first weeks of the campaign, prominent Republicans came out en masse for Tedisco. Michael Steele, in his honeymoon period as chairman of the Republican National Committee, drove to New York to make an appearance with the candidate. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is being courted for a gubernatorial bid, campaigned with Tedisco. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) threw down the gauntlet and called the special election “a giant opportunity for us to let America know that America is on our side.”

If February, the first polls in the race showed Tedisco leading by double digits over the lesser-known Murphy. Over the next month, Tedisco steadily lost that lead in internal and public polling. On Tuesday, Republicans could cite numerous reasons for the slippage. Tedisco took too long to stake out a position on the economic stimulus bill. (On March 16, he finally said he would have voted against the bill.) Tedisco lost the three televised debates to Murphy. Tedisco never found a coherent argument for his candidacy or against Murphy’s candidacy–a problem that worsened when independent groups attacked Murphy on multiple fronts while Tedisco denounced but could not pull down their advertisements.

Scott Wheeler, the executive director of the National Republican Trust, did not buy that argument. His group spent more than $300,000 on ads blasting Murphy for his support of the stimulus and his opposition to the death penalty even if applied to Osama bin Laden. “My senses tell me if our ads were backfiring, Tedisco wouldn’t have finished so strong,” said Wheeler. “I don’t see the backlash that some of these people in the media were predicting. I think we energized the Republican base and changed some peoples’ minds.”

Tedisco drew national Republican support until the very end of the race, although the influx of Republican surrogates slowed down as the election got closer. Five days before the election, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gave Tedisco $1,000. Before the polls closed on Tuesday, Bachmann told TWI that “if we see a positive outcome with Tedisco, I think that’s a good portend of things to come.”

But on Tuesday night, Republicans were at a loss to explain what the election meant. When in doubt, they pointed to decisions that might have saved a faltering Tedisco campaign from an outright defeat. Rob Willington, the executive director of the Republican grassroots group Rebuild the Party, pointed to the group’s distributed phonebanking effort and humanizing promotional videos of Tedisco as factors that kept the race tight.

“The weekend that he announced,” said Willington, “I drove down to the district and took some video of Tedisco, to show Republicans what kind of a great guy he is. When those ads started appearing online asking for donations, they weren’t asking who he was. That’s something new we did in this race. I’m encouraged that the base is fired up.”

In its statement on the race, released nearly an hour after the final results came in, the National Republican Campaign Committee was less celebratory than diagnostic. Less than 150 days ago, President Obama carried New York’s 20th District, and former Congresswoman Gillibrand was handily reelected in this district by a margin of 62-38 percent, despite the fact that her Republican opponent spent $6 million trying to defeat her,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), according to the NRCC. For the first time in a long time, a Republican candidate went toe-to-toe with a Democrat in a hard-fought battle over independent voters. This was hardly a common phenomenon in 2008, particularly in the Northeast.” While the NRCC and Tedisco went hard after Scott Murphy on the AIG bonuses debacle, accusing the Democrat of de facto support for the bonuses through his support for the stimulus bill, AIG got one short mention in the NRCC’s post-mortem.

Willington and his fellow Republican Web gurus were, on the surface, much more pleased with the result. Tedisco had raised more than $120,000 in online donations through a widget designed by Patrick Ruffini, another Rebuild the Party founder and the webmaster of the Bush/Cheney campaign. Twitter, which has quickly become a favorite Republican tech tool, was overrun with tweets pushing Tedisco’s campaign and donation page. “I’m encouraged that my Twitter feed is blowing up with ‘Tedisco recount’ tags,” said Willington.

“One of my best friends just changed her Facebook status to ‘RECOUNT,’” said Conner. Tedisco’s own campaign site quickly found a new purpose in the photo-finish race, with a message that started getting pushed on Twitter as Murphy pulled ahead in the final election day results. “We are confident the people of New York’s 20th District chose Jim Tedisco when all is said and done, however we need your help to protect these ballots in case of a recount.”

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