SARATOGA SPRINGS—After eight weeks, millions of dollars and countless hours of lost sleep, Jim Tedisco could not, on election night, give a speech declaring victory in his Congressional bid. Instead, he did what he knows how to do: He vowed to fight on.
In his 30-year career in elected office, this is the toughest election the Assembly minority leader has faced. He is, in theory, close to victory: There are about 10,000 outstanding absentee ballots and his opponent, Democratic businessman Scott Murphy, leads by about 60 votes. Given the district's significant Republican tilt, Republicans say they are confident they will prevail when all is said and done. (Democrats, likewise, say they are confident the paper ballots will mirror their showing in the polls.)
Tedisco was met by a room packed with supporters, but the strain of the final 40-hour campaign sprint showed in his demeanor. Supporters were milling around a ballroom at the Holiday Inn next to Congress Park in the Spa City, glued to a TV set showing returns on a local cable channel. When Tedisco walked in at 10:35, the room erupted; he moved briskly from handshake to handshake before addressing the crowd.
"From now on just call me ‘Landslide Tedisco!'" He swayed as he spoke, read from prepared text, and after he finished each page, he passed them to his wife, Mary Song Tedisco, who folded them into eighths with her right hand and then wadded them up into her left. "While we can't declare victory just yet," he said, "I believe that when the smoke clears, we will have won a tremendous victory."
Before Tedisco arrived, the Republicans in the crowd did their best to lower expectations. Saratoga Republican County Party Chairman Jasper Nolan used phrases like "pull it out" and "see what happens."
Like most of the events in the final weekend of the campaign, no big stars were there. State Senator Roy McDonald dropped by, as well as a few of Tedisco's Republican Assembly colleagues. (To be fair, most members of the State Legislature were dealing with the state budget.) In addition to his wife, Tedisco was flanked by Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett and Saratoga County Clerk Kathy Marchione. Nolan stood just outside the camera shots.
The campaign has been more of a challenge than almost anyone expected in this conservative district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 70,000. Tedisco was also expected to benefit from much greater name recognition in the district; Murphy has never been elected to office, and has only lived there for about three years.
But that's not quite how it went.
Tedisco started with a 20 percent lead in the polls, but by the end trailed Murphy by four points. Some of the drop may have been due to his fairly negative campaign and TV ads—in addition to anecdotal evidence, the polling data supports the idea.
"He made it very personal," one Republican elected official told me.
This official also recounted a meeting between Tedisco and some of his volunteers. One asked what they were supposed to say as they went door-to-door—how to complete the sentence, "I'm here on behalf of Jim Tedisco, he stands for…"
There was silence.
Even on election night, one Tedisco supporter, during a conversation about his chances of victory, repeated the Tedisco campaign's most often-repeated talking point: "Who is Scott Murphy?"
Several people with knowledge of the inner workings of the Tedisco campaign have said the strategy was handed down from Washington, although that's not the complete story. Tedisco has never had to worry much about what he stands for—just what he stands against. He has always been in the position of leading a minority conference in the heavily Democratic State Assembly, which is ruled with an iron fist by Speaker Sheldon Silver. He's good at getting attention, but he's never had to worry much about governing.
Tedisco made a point, during his speech last night, to thank Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions and Rudy Giuliani, all of whom helped in the campaign. But by then, the national party had begun to distance itself from Tedisco, and Tedisco, when it was clear their strategy wasn't working, returned the favor.
"I don't know who turned their back on who first," said one prominent Republican operative in the district.
As the crowd thinned, I asked Tedisco why it got so close.
"I think really Nancy Pelosi, Kirsten Gillibrand and Barack Obama kind of turned it around a little bit and made it more moderate of a district. It's not Gerry Solomon's old district," he said. (In spite of that, he appeared with Solomon's widow, Freda, and unabashedly took many conservative positions. The most notable was his eventual opposition to the federal stimulus package.)
Murphy, by contrast was able to associate himself with the popular new president, who endorsed him; the former representative of the district, now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; and other prominent Democrats. Gillibrand appeared at events with Murphy, as did Chuck Schumer. Both Gillibrand and David Paterson attended Murphy's campaign wrap party. (Paterson, whose poll numbers have plummeted, had a limited public role in the race.)
The national Democratic party sent help when Murphy started to look like a viable candidate. By then, the race was being spun by the national press as a referendum on Obama's presidency, though Democrats refused to subscribe publicly to the idea.
(Representative Steve Israel, who is involved in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and helped select Murphy, told me, "I've never believed that a referendum on anything other than who will best represent the voters of the 20th District. This isn't about Barack Obama's popularity. This is about having a congressman who will move the country forward rather than setting it back.")
"This was the race that was never supposed to be a race," June O'Neill, chair of the State Democratic Party, told me during Murphy's campaign-wrap at the tony Gideon Putnam hotel in Saratoga Springs. "The fact that we have to eke out a victory means we've won already."
Reflecting a line used of late by the national party, O'Neill said she attributed some of Murphy's rise as a reaction against Tedisco's strategy. "People are tired of the politics of 'no,'" she said.
The turnout at the polls yesterday was higher than anyone predicted—a combined 154,000. That's just under a third of the registered electorate, which is pretty far over the average turnout for a special election. Compare that to the 334,716 who voted for either Gillibrand or Sandy Treadwell in 2008.
Lawyers acting on behalf of the Republican State Committee have already obtained an injunction to seal the paper ballots until a court hearing April 6. Board of elections officials say they have so far received 5,907. The count will likely drag out for another two weeks.
During that time, Tedisco will return to elected life in Albany. He hasn't been nearly as visual in the Capitol as usual lately, and many Assembly minority staffers left to work on the campaign. Members of the Assembly Republican conference say that Brian Kolb of the Finger Lakes has secured the votes needed to succeed Tedisco. One member said he had been told that Tedisco would step down as leader even if he loses the Congressional bid.
If Tedisco loses, it may also be the final straw for Republican State Committee Chair Joe Mondello. Two Republicans familiar with the process by which Tedisco was nominated said it was Mondello who rammed through his nomination, with Nolan serving as the rod.
I asked Tedisco about whether he would step down. He said he would go back to business as usual.
"That's my job, and I love that, and if I wasn't going to do that, I'd always want to stay as minority leader," he said.