Tuesday’s election for the New York 20th Congressional District seat is expected to be a nail-biter.
“I think it’s going to be a squeaker,” said Helen Desfosses, associate professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany. “This is a real race. I don’t think people expected it to be a real race in the beginning.”
Republican James Tedisco was supposed to win the election easily because of the district’s GOP enrollment advantage and his name recognition from 26 years in the Assembly, most recently as the vocal minority leader, she said.
But Democrat Scott Murphy had some built-in advantages, too, said Robert Turner, political science professor at Skidmore College.
“The national importance of this election and the amount of money that was going to be put into his candidacy by the Democratic Party ensured that he would have pretty high name recognition pretty quickly,” he said.
Also, less than five months after electing one Democrat as president and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand to Congress, 20th District voters might be more open-minded to another Democrat on the ballot.
So pundits are predicting a tight race for the House of Representatives seat that will be decided by who comes out to vote on Tuesday. Low voter turnout could favor Tedisco as independents stay home, while a higher turnout might give Murphy a boost, Turner said.
“It’s very hard to predict what turnout will be,” he said.
To get voters to the polls, candidates are pouring resources into a get-out-the-vote effort in the campaign’s last days.
“It’s going to be an intense few days talking to voters, visiting homes, getting the word out,” said Adam Kramer, Tedisco spokesman.
Both the Murphy and Tedisco campaigns are organizing telephone blitzes and door-to-door campaigning.
Murphy, who ranked four percentage points above Tedisco in a Siena Research Institute poll released Friday, got an endorsement from President Barack Obama last week. Murphy also got access to Obama’s e-mail list of about 60,000 upstate voters who backed the popular presidential candidate last year.
“Once we saw e-mails from the president, my colleagues and I thought, ‘Wow, they must really expect him to win because otherwise, Obama would not be putting his name into a campaign,’ ” Desfosses said.
An Obama e-mail last week asked for voters to volunteer to spread the word about Murphy.
“Our phones have been ringing off the hook,” said Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for Murphy. “Our offices are packed with volunteers.”
Desfosses said the momentum from a rising candidate like Murphy can swing undecided voters on Election Day.
Meanwhile, Tedisco will continue to get support from local officials, Kramer said.
The Murphy campaign has tried to define the choice as a local businessman versus a career politician, and the Tedisco camp paints it as Main Street values versus Wall Street greed.
“He’s well known as someone who’s a reformer in Albany,” Kramer said of Tedisco.
The candidates have similar positions on many issues. Murphy and Tedisco both favor gun rights.
Both call themselves fiscal conservatives, though Tedisco attacks what he considers wasteful spending in the federal economic recovery act, while Murphy says those funds will help create jobs.
Both men favor tax credits for small businesses and funds for alternative energy.
Some observers will interpret the election results as a referendum on the $780 billion stimulus package and the Obama presidency, but that’s not really accurate, Turner said.
“I think if Tedisco wins, it will be cited as ‘the public is upset about the AIG scandals,’ ” he said. “If Murphy wins, I think it would be interpreted as the weakness of the New York Republican Party, that it can’t get its minority leader elected over an unknown and untested businessman.”
But to simplify the outcome undersells district voters, who consider more than one issue when picking a candidate, Turner said.
“I think there’s always a big stretch from interpreting national meanings from local elections,” he said.
Both candidates — aided by their national parties — have spent much of their time criticizing each other.
The Democrats slammed Tedisco for his transportation expenses in office, who his campaign contributors were and his opposition to the stimulus package.
Republicans trashed Murphy for writing that he did in college, his business dealings with an Indian auction Web site and giving bonuses to executives of a faltering company as he was rebuilding it, which they compared to AIG executives getting bonuses from the taxpayer bailout.
The national parties also painted Tedisco as a buddy of controversial talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Murphy as a chum of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But do negative ads really work?
Desfosses said they do energize partisans on both sides but turn off middle-of-the-road voters.
Both she and Leonard Cutler, political science professor at Siena College, say the Tedisco campaign ads were more negative than the Murphy camp’s propaganda, which could sway some voters to side with Murphy because they’re tired of the nastiness.
“They seem to be a little bit too much toward the jugular, too much attack dog kind of thing,” Cutler said of the Republican ads.
Voters surveyed in the latest Siena poll agree.
The poll showed that 42 percent of voters thought Murphy’s campaign was more positive, while 25 percent said Tedisco’s was more positive.
Murphy’s television spot featuring the popular Gillibrand probably earned him points with voters for its positive message, Desfosses said. Her appointment to the Senate opened the House seat for this election.
Similarly, Turner said Tedisco’s ad with Price Chopper President Neil Golub was a good strategy because it emphasized what Tedisco has done for the community while in the Assembly.
“It is surprising that he has not perhaps done a better job of emphasizing his accomplishments in office,” Turner said.
Tedisco’s greatest strength is his history as a fighter in Albany, Desfosses agreed.
“I think he’s made more of that position than any other minority leader in memory has made of it,” she said.
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