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New York race undecided, but Dems claim victory of sorts

In a special congressional election seen as a test of Obama's coattails, the Democrat leads by 59 votes, with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted.

By Staff writer / April 1, 2009

Twentieth congressional district Democratic candidate Scott Murphy gets a high-five from 4-year-old son Duke as Jen Hogan-Murphy finishes voting at the Glens Falls High School in Glens Falls, N.Y., Tuesday. The special election is to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, who was named to the US Senate in January after former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton became secretary of State.

RICK GARGIULO/ THE SARATOGIAN/ AP

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Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The much ballyhooed special congressional election here in New York's North Country remains too close to call the morning after voting ended.

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As the first congressional election to be held after President Obama's inauguration, pundits have characterized it as an early referendum on Mr. Obama’s short but active tenure in office. It is also seen as a proving ground for controversial Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who made winning the seat a top priority.

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting in this once-safe Republican stronghold, Democrat Scott Murphy holds a narrow 59 vote lead over Republican Jim Tedisco with at least 5,000 absentee ballots yet to count. A final victor may not be known until April 13, the deadline for overseas ballots to arrive in state. Then there are potential legal challenges.

Still, some Democrats are already claiming a victory of sorts. There are 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in this mostly rural district that reaches from just south of Canada to an hour north of New York City. Moreover, Democrats fielded a relatively unknown candidate against a well-known Republican state Assembly leader. Yet the Democrat is leading – albeit by a negligible margin.

"If somebody's smiling – or at least not crying yet – it's the Democrats," says Doug Muzzio, a New York political analyst.

On a map, New York’s 20th Congressional District looks like a skinny salamander that runs west along the Hudson River, with one large foot that suddenly juts out toward Binghamton. It was created during the 2002 redistricting and was safe Republican territory from then until 2007, when Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand beat an incumbent who was thought to be safe in a nail-biter.

As a conservative Democrat, Ms. Gillibrand was a good fit for the rolling farm country and old manufacturing towns that make up the 20th. She was in favor of gun rights and against more liberal immigration laws. In 2008, she was easily reelected, then recently named to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton when she became Secretary of State.

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