I've been putting this off, but before I forget what happened, I thought I'd write the last word on the NY 20 special election.
I note I was not a participant in the race, but as my wife is from Rennselaer County I thought I had something useful to add to the proceedings. And I was paying attention.
My main point is we'd better not draw the wrong lessons here or we will make the same mistakes.
There are two major misconceptions that we first ought to get out of our heads:
a. "We lost because we ran a weak candidate"
Jim Tedisco was an experienced office holder, had lots of media exposure, and worked very hard. He was not an aging party warhorse who had previously lost elections or nominations; or some young rookie who didn;t seem up to the job. While I think Saratoga District Attorney Jim Murphy or State Senator Roy McDonald might have made stronger candidates, neither chose to run. We will do well to get equally qualified candidates in most of our 2010 open and challenger races
A quick note. Our candidate selection process here was the proverbial "smoke filled room". So was theirs. Our problem is the unsuccessful suitors (Fmr. Columbia County Assemblyman John Faso and North County State Senator Betty Little) thought they were equally worthy of being Gillibrand's heir apparent; while the Democrats had an unelected cast of thousands. So we had some dissention from the losing candidate's localities and they didn't. But had we picked Little or Faso, we might have run weakly in Saratoga.
b. "NY 20 is really now a Democrat district"
Yes, NY 20 has drifted towards the Democrats in recent years; and so has most of the country. It is still one of the five most Republican districts out of 29 in NY State and virtually every legislator in this region is a Republican. (McDonald won an open state senate seat in the heart of the district going away in 2008 against Gillibrand's top aide). Plus, demographically it is a middle class district populated by rural and suburban whites. Obama won the seat by only 3 points when McCain didn't contest NY State.
We are never getting back to 218 seats in the House unless districts like NY 20 vote reliably for Republicans again. This district is a clone of places like PA 10, MI 7, WI 8 and MN 1 we used to hold easily.
So what happened to make us lose?
1. Fear and inertia on the GOP's part
I think had there been no early polling in this race Jim Tedisco won have won. An early public poll showed him up 50%-29%. This indicated it was his race to lose. And he started off running that way.
Evidently private polling showed Obama and the stimulus package as very popular in this chronically economically challenged part of the country. So the Tedisco brain trust decided that they had to avoid any confrontation to Obama at all. This proved to be a disasterous strategy. Obviously the other side would press the case a vote for Scott Murphy was a vote for Obama. Some rationale for not electing a rubber stamp needed to be presented. But it wasn't
2. Upstate NY did not love the smell of napalm in the morning
Instead of engaging Democrat Scott Murphy on substance, the decision was made to attack his record in private business. Some relatively small tax liens were hammered to draw a parallel to Tim Geithner. Some old writings at Harvard were pulled out to draw an anti-military picture. The payment of bonuses at a money-losing firm he ran was also hammered.
While none of these were smears, the NRCC had left a bad taste in the mouth of the upstate NY media after the 2006 NY 24 fiasco, where two misdials were played into making Mike Arcuri a pornmonger. (NY 24 is an adjoining district) The bill for that stupidity came due. The press therefore depicted Tedisco and the GOP in a bad light. Murphy also responded that at least he was trying to create jobs in upstate NY. And that was the only issue that mattered.
I think a better line of attack would have been to have painted Murphy as a crony capitalist who profited from political connections in MO, and just interloped for poltical fortune. But the bigger lesson here I draw---which I saw in 2006 with another Murphy in CT 5---is the traditional GOP tactic of massive negative TV ads early---just isn't working anymore. At least not against younger candidates who act apolitical---or in white bread districts in the North. The negatives rise for the Republicans as fast as we raise them for the targeted opponent.
Late in the race the Tedisco ran death penalty and terrorism ads which failed, perhaps because we are years past 9/11 and the district isn't in metro NY. Once again, our playbook failed.
There's something worth chewing over. Once again, our own candidate was forced to disavow what the NRCC was doing ostensibly on his behalf. This is no longer an isolated occurrence. Maybe you'd best pay attention, ya think?
3. You can never win in the Waffle House
Tedisco and his handlers spent days not answering the question of whether he'd have voted for the Obama stimulus package. The district's leading paper. the Times Union. hammered him mercilessly on it. In trying to avoid looking too much like a negative partisan Republican the GOP brain trust made Tedisco out as a politically manipulative cipher.
This was disasterous for two reasons. First, Jim Tedisco's "brand" was being the guy who stood up to Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. They failed to use their candidate's positive qualities by trying to hide in the Waffle House. The campaign's paid ads, which were vague on specifics, probably made matters worse; since again, his attributes weren't used. The failure of Tedisco, Assembly Minority Leader, to tie Murphy to the increasingly unpopular and incompetent Democrat Governor, David Paterson, was another question out of Unsolved Mysteries .
Tedisco's negatives were that he was a career politician in a dysfunctional and disliked state legislature. This tactic only made Scott Murphy's case for him: that Jim Tedisco was just another self-serving, dissembling Albany hack unworthy of promotion. So the Tedisco camp trapped themselves and found themselves validating the Murphy negative ad wave when it arrived. Indeed, it almost seemed like Murphy implied Tedisco was tied to Paterson.
Worst still, Tedisco then finally came out against the stimulus bill. Then he got blasted as a partisan refusenik anyway. The trifecta achieved. Anger liberals anyway, demobilize conservatives who perceive you as a RINO invertebrate; and make swing voters think you are a ambitious politician lacking candor.
Part of the downside here is Tedisco spent valuable time late in the race motivating national conservative bloggers which might have been spent more usefully doing appearances in the local media. Your base needs to be locked down early.
4. Late work and a late voice can't overcome early missteps
About 10 days out the Siena poll showed the 21 point Tedisco lead had turned into a 4 point Murphy lead, with Tedisco's negative ratings surging. Then manna from heaven occurred. The AIG bonus flap erupted and the Obama stimulus bill and corporate bonuses didn;t look so good.
Tedisco finally found his voice--blasting Geithner and making clear he was the candidate who could effectively deal with Wall Street greed and the economic mess. He pulled out an endorsement ad from the prominent local businessman Neil Golub. And he campaigned 24/7 up to the election.
Some libertarian minded folks think Tedisco never should have been perceived as "anti-business" and that he would have won as a free market devotee. I can't disagree more. We may raise lots of money from the Club for Growth, but they have few members in Saratoga and Rennselaer county. The GOP is now a blue collar rural party and Tedisco finally offered a message that resonated for the voters we needed. Remember, Gillibrand had voted against TARP and her political instincts in this district were excellent.
On election night, the vote was a dead heat. The Albany suburbs came in big for Tedisco. He lost Murphy's home turf in the North Country and NYC expat area Columbia County. But what proved devastating for Tedisco was his failure to achieve any margin in the counties furthest from Albany....traditionally Republican Delaware and Otsego counties. But for the want of some ads and appearances on Binghamton and Utica TV....
Tedisco won the Battle of Saratoga. I did not expect him to lose the Battle of Oneonta.
5. Losing ugly after the whistle.
The GOP expected to win the election on AB's; after all it had sent out a lot more than the Democrats. But relatively few military ballots came back; they evidently weren't sent out quickly enough. And not all the Republican AB's voted for Tedisco, while the Democrats seemed to be in lockstep. Perhaps the "Waffle House" strategy backfired since the AB's were cast before Tedisco made his late surge against the stimulus.
The GOP tried to overcome this pre-election deficiency by aggressively challenging returned AB's; including that of Senator Gillibrand. This failed to work and just made the Republicans look like they were trying to rip things off after the polls closed. Tedisco prudently stood down before matters got worse as he was down 400 with no real hope of making up the difference.
A last word. The NY GOP has tried to win races with ballot challenges, handpicking candidates and throwing third party candidates off the ballot. (The Libertarian candidate was thrown off the ballot at the 11th hour and endorsed Murphy; this may have net Murphy more votes than having him left on the ballot) They have not engaged much in the realm of ideas. They used each of these tricks in this race and failed---much as they failed in recent special elections for the State Senate. Will they finally learn from this public debacle? We better.
I do not include the folks who blog here in this critique. Tedisco's fundraising and e-campaigns were very well run and neither Patrick Ruffini nor Tom Lewis ought to be part of the recriminations. The problem is without a message tools are not very useful.
6. My take
We will only win in 2010 and 2012 if we stand for a positive set of ideas and let our candidates exploit their natural talents. If we think we can win by incinerating our opponent and mumbling and stumbling through the campaign we will be defeated yet again.