Tedisco’s at Risk, and So Is the Republican Comeback Narrative

The time between the swearing-in of a new Congress and the next general election is about 22 months. But in that period, individual members invariably resign, die or get sentenced to federal prison, necessitating a special election—which, under the right circumstances, offers the out-of-power party a chance to claim national momentum.

For today's feeble Republican Party, the circumstances are right—or should be right, at least—in New York's 20th District, where a special election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, who surrendered her House seat when David Paterson picked her for the Senate, is now less than three weeks away.

Since the 20th is considered a politically competitive district, national analysts are willing to treat the result as an early measure of Barack Obama's (and the majority Democrats') standing. But while it has elected a Democratic representative in the past two elections, the 20th isn't really a toss-up district; by registration and past performance, it leans considerably to the G.O.P. In theory, then, this should be a simple operation for the G.O.P.: field a solid candidate, run a competent campaign and let the district's demographics take care of the rest—and then trumpet the result as proof of an early backlash against Obama and his big-spending ways.

But that may not be how it's working out. A new Siena poll released Thursday put the Republican candidate, New York State Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, just four points ahead of Democrat Scott Murphy, 45 to 41 percent. For Tedisco, who is better known than his opponent and has spent heavily on television ads, it's a troubling sign to be under 50 percent in this district, and the news is worse when you consider Murphy's momentum: Two weeks ago, Tedisco's lead was 12 points.

This was supposed to be an easy one for the G.O.P., but now there is a distinct possibility that they will lose. And even if Tedisco ekes out a narrow victory, national Democrats could be in position to sell the result as a moral victory, a better-than-expected near-miss in an unfriendly district—the same thing they did when Paul Hackett came within inches of defeating Jean Schmidt in a 2005 special election in Ohio's strongly Republican 2nd District. Given that New York's 20th isn't nearly as red as Ohio's 2nd, the national media probably wouldn't be as receptive to this spin, but they also won't be inclined to portray a Tedisco squeaker as a momentous triumph for the G.O.P.

The consequences of defeat in the 20th would be considerable for national Republicans, since it would dramatically disrupt their efforts to portray 2009 and 2010 as a repeat of 1993 and 1994—the last time they were completely locked out of power. In that cycle, they won the most hotly contested special elections, a handful of high-profile mayoralties, and both governorships that were up in '93, all of which built momentum for their "revolution" in the '94 midterm elections.

Today's Republicans are quick to make comparisons to '93 and '94, and are desperate to convince the media (and themselves) that something similar is now afoot—that Obama's election was just a blip in an era of Republican dominance, and not the end of it. That'93/'94 model actually provides a fairly clear road map for what the current G.O.P. needs to do to get the media talking about a Republican comeback.

In the spring of '93, Republicans won mayoral elections in Los Angeles and Jersey City, and even though there were extenuating circumstances in both elections, the party was able to brag of winning on overwhelmingly Democratic turf. Then, in the three signature races that fall—for governorships in New Jersey and Virginia and for mayor of New York—they went three-for-three. The media began buying into the notion of a Republican resurgence and a backlash against Bill Clinton.

After that, an unknown Christian bookstore owner from Kentucky, Ron Lewis, won a June 1994 special election in a staunchly Democratic district. Again, there were extenuating circumstances (the district's voters, like many voters across the South, were just realizing that their conservatism was more compatible with the G.O.P. than with the Democratic Party they had been born into), but the perception of a building G.O.P. tide only strengthened. On top of another special election win in a similar district in Oklahoma, New York's Bill Paxon, who was then overseeing the House G.O.P.'s election efforts, declared that "these two races should send a chilling message to Democrats." Then came the November revolution.

No matter what Republicans say, though, 2009 is fundamentally different from 1993, when the G.O.P.'s government-is-the-enemy rhetoric was still in vogue and when a full-scale realignment in the South, three decades in the making, had yet to play out. This doesn't mean the G.O.P. can't score a bunch of wins this year and next and make big gains in the '10 midterms—various factors suggest that political landscape will be favorable to the G.O.P through '10. But to take a longer view, any near-term Republican success figures to be more comparable to the fleeting gains that Democrats made in Ronald Reagan's first two years in office, and not a sign of a mass shift back to the right.

If they can run the table in the major races on this year's political calendar, the media will be compelled to treat their ‘93/'94 analogies seriously—and to raise questions about whether the public is cooling on Obama and readying itself for another midterm election shake-up.

But the Republicans of 16 years ago never lost a winnable race. If the G.O.P. can't win in the 20th District in a few weeks, their favorite analogy will die an early death.