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.

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.

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

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.

Republicans were determined to win the seat back. Mr. Steele called it “incredibly important.” The Republicans fielded state Assembly minority leader Jim Tedisco as a candidate. While he didn’t actually live in the district, he was a well-known Republican leader in the area and started with name recognition and money.

The Democrats chose Scott Murphy, an unknown originally from Missouri, who has lived in upstate New York for the past decade, working as a businessman and venture capitalist.

When the race began, Assemblyman Tedisco was up 20 points. As the campaign progressed, however, national issues began to take center stage, and as they did, Mr. Murphy’s poll numbers started rising. Murphy criticized Tedisco for initially refusing to take a stand on Obama’s stimulus package, for example. Tedisco eventually came out against it.

In a Siena Research Institute Poll released three days before the election, Murphy was up by 4 points, in part because his campaign was seen as more positive than Tedisco’s.

That was one of the things that prompted Joanne Stiles from Kinderhook, N.Y., to join other volunteers at Columbia County Democratic headquarters and spend her day calling people to get out the vote.

“We have now the momentum in this bastion of Republicanism, and I felt like, ‘I gotta do something,' ” she says.

Candidate Murphy swung by the county headquarters to thank the volunteers, saying he believes it all comes down to the economy.

“We’ve been talking about my experience as an entrepreneur building small businesses, as an investor working with small businesses and helping to create more than 1,000 jobs upstate,” he said. “That’s what people are looking for: problem solvers.”

Several hours north in Glens Falls, N.Y., Tedisco was making the rounds at Abbotts Restaurant, and he contends the main issue in the race was fiscal responsibility.

“When I see the waste and the shopping spree they’re on out there, where they appear to want to vacuum up as much money as they can to make new programs, I want to take on Congress,” he said.

But inside Abbotts, supporters like Jeannine Monroe, who was having lunch with friends from the local senior center, says she’s voting for Tedisco because she's comfortable with him. She’s a registered Republican, but she did vote for Obama in the fall. Even though Obama has endorsed Murphy, Ms. Monroe said she’s sticking with the candidate she knows.

“I was very confused off and on, but finally decided it’s going to be Jim,” she said. “You see a lot of negative things on TV, but you just have to forget that and go with what you know.”

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