The biggest downside for Democrats to Kirsten Gillibrand's appointment to the U.S. Senate, supposedly, was that it would endanger the House seat that she'd won in 2006 and (convincingly) in 2008 – and that quite possibly no other Democrat would be able to win.
The 20th District has historically favored Republicans, and the Democrats' recent successes were easily explained, with Gillibrand capitalizing in '06 on widespread voter fatigue with George W. Bush and the Republican Congress (as well as the travails of incumbent John Sweeney, accused days before the election of spousal abuse) and sailing through in '08 thanks to her massive war chest, shrewd positioning on issues, and comparable public disaffection with the G.O.P.
With Bush gone, the G.O.P. Congress a thing of the past, and turnout receding from its presidential high of last fall, a credible and well-funded G.O.P. Republican campaign would reassert the party's traditional dominance in the district – or so the thinking went.
But the special election to replace Gillibrand is now upon us and the best that Republicans can hope for, it seems, is something akin to the Pyrrhic victory they won in a closely watched Ohio special election four years ago, when their nominee, Jean Schmidt, eked out an utterly underwhelming victory in a staunchly Republican district.
Despite his party's sizable registration advantage, Jim Tedisco, the G.O.P.'s nominee, fell behind Democrat Scott Murphy in the final independent poll, reversing what had been a double-digit deficit when the campaign first began two months ago. What's most remarkable is that, at least on paper, Tedisco, the Republican leader in the state Assembly, is exactly the kind of established, competent and marketable candidate that the G.O.P. needed to field to reclaim the district. But now he's on the brink of defeat.
If he does go down to defeat, the result will resonate nationally, with the brunt of the grief falling on Michael Steele, who began his tenure as the G.O.P.'s national chairman in late January by declaring that the 20th District's special election would mark the start of his party's ballot box revival.
Since then, Steele has been shredded in the media and by key figures (both privately and publicly) in his own party. He'll make an obvious and inviting target for the media, for mischievous Democrats and for his intra-party enemies. Whether it will cost him his job, though, remains doubtful, if nothing else because his opposition within the party is fractured – and it's not like the post is particularly appealing these days, anyway.
The Washington-based National Republican Congressional Committee will also come in for criticism if Tedisco loses. The N.R.C.C. bankrolled a series of harshly negative ads that may have stirred a backlash against Tedisco. A loss in the very winnable 20th District would make for an inauspicious debut for Pete Sessions, the Texas Republican who was elected by his colleagues last November to chair the N.R.C.C. – with a mandate to chip away at the party's '06 and '08 congressional losses.
At this point, a Tedisco win, assuming the result is close, probably won't do much for the G.O.P. save for preventing a wave of apocalyptic headlines. Winning the 20th District isn't supposed to require a Herculean effort on the G.O.P.'s part. Pulling out a win over Murphy would be the political equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers needing a fourth quarter rally to overcome the Detroit Lions – hardly a confidence-inspiring result, in other words.
For national Democrats, on the other hand, the range of possible outcomes ranges from mildly disappointment to ecstatic euphoria. In taking a race in a G.O.P-friendly district to the wire, the party is essentially playing with house money. A Murphy win be cause for celebration and much chest-thumping, but a loss (unless Tedisco somehow wins comfortably) won't really hurt them at all.
With a Murphy win (or even a narrow loss), Democrats will be able to claim that the Republican strategy for opposing Obama has backfired. Early in the campaign, Murphy embraced Obama's stimulus package, which every Republican in the House opposed – and which, after much dilly-dallying, Tedisco ultimately opposed, too. The talk from national Republicans about mounting public trepidation toward Obama's spending programs will be easier for Democrats to refute if Murphy pulls this out.
Barring an unforeseen Tedisco landslide, the winners and losers from the 20th District race – at least at the national level – are already clear. The only question is how badly the G.O.P. will lose – and how big the Democrats will win.