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Polls open in a New York state of mind

March 31, 2009 |  8:21 am

Republican James Tedisco (left) and Democrat Scott Murphy, competing in special election in New York March 31, 2009

They're calling it a referendum on President Obama's economic policies  and on the strength of his coattails. It's also a crucial marker for embattled Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who has called the race a priority and who needs a victory to steady his rocky start.

By whatever name, today's special election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand -- elevated to the U.S. Senate by Gov. David Paterson when Hillary Rodham Clinton left to become Obama's secretary of State -- in NY20 is shaping up as a hell of a contest.

This is a conservative, upstate, gun-loving district, where Republicans have a 70,000-voter registration advantage but where Obama won in November.

Democrat Scott Murphy  has embraced all things Obama, including the president's $787-billion stimulus plan. Republican James Tedisco has lashed out against deficit spending and welcomed helped from Steele, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and even robocall help from longtime crooner Pat Boone.

The latest Siena Research Institute poll shows Murphy ahead by four points (47% to 43%), a come-from-behind position after trailing Tedisco by 12 points in February (46% to 34%).

If Republicans win, look for them to champion the end of the Obama honeymoon and use the victory to energize their voters in upcoming gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. If they lose, look for Democrats to crow about the president's continuing popularity and chances for Democrats to hold or boost their margins in the nation's gubernatorial races as well as the House and the Senate.

But Charlie Cook, whose Cook Political Report is a must-read for Washington's politicos, is dubious about how much the race means for the national landscape. In his CongressDaily column today, he writes:

Assuming that the margin in this upstate contest to fill the seat of newly-appointed Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is three or four points or less, my advice is to respond "that's nice," then yawn, and walk away. What is more important is if there is a uniform direction to several odd-year elections. If, for example, Republicans were to win tonight and knock off Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey in November, and pick up the open governor seat in Virginia, then it is fair to say that they will have exorcised the demons of 2006 and 2008.

And, he added, "if Democrats hold NY20 as well as New Jersey and Virginia, they can enter 2010 knowing that even if the wind isn't at their backs, there also isn't a headwind."

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo (above left): James Tedisco. Credit: Reuters

Photo (above right): Scott Murphy. Credit: Reuters

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