NY-20: Too Close to Call, and Nothing to Extrapolate?

Reporters, party operatives, analysts, and political junkies had looked to New York's 20th district congressional race as a referendum on many fronts, hoping to extrapolate a political moral from the first special election of the 2010 cycle. But with 100 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night well after polls had closed, a too-close-to-call non-result left the political world with little to deduce--and could eliminate the chance that anyone will read much into it.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night, Democrat Scott Murphy led Republican Jim Tedisco by 65 votes, and, with thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted, it could be days or weeks before we have a winner. A decision by the state board of elections last week to extend the absentee ballot deadline to April 13--to give overseas ballots sufficient time to reach the district--will likely prolong things even further, as The Hill's Aaron Blake points out. If the final count is close, possible legal challenges could drag the race out, well, almost forever, as Minnesota's 2008 Senate election showed.

A long vote-counting or legal process would, undoubtedly, mute the national political impact of Tuesday's election. Democrats had hoped the race would prove President Obama's economic agenda is popular with voters; Republicans, that it would prove their party still appeals to swing voters and is capable of a comeback. As a major political football, the specter of AIG outrage loomed. Republican National Committee Chairman (RNC) Michael Steele had staked some of his reputation on the race, visiting the district twice and pouring $275,000 of RNC money into it, as Politico's Charles Mahtesian notes.

Republicans will of course be cheering if Tedisco wins, as will Democrats if Murphy holds on, but the moment may have been lost two weeks from now if, say, they are cheering the opening of the last absentee ballot or an appellate judge's ruling...or if the cheers come months from now, upon an official statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the effect of, "We will, after much litigation, seat Scott Murphy." The race for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's old House seat in upstate New York may be decided in an election boardroom, but the popularity of the stimulus and the vitality of the GOP may not be.

The close margin has not prevented the parties from spinning today's results. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said, in a statement released tonight, that "Scott Murphy embraced President Obama's message of change and his plans to fix our economy and create jobs, and as a result  he stormed from more than 20 points down to winning a majority of votes cast tonight," while National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions stressed Democrats' typical dominance in the Northeast and called the close margin a "testament to the strength of Jim's campaign and the effectiveness of the Republican message of fiscal responsibility and accountability that Americans are demanding in the wake of the AIG scandal."

If there's a clear winner by midday tomorrow, NY-20 could still set a tone for the 2010 cycle as a statement on the stimulus, AIG, and party momentum. (Granted, reading too much into it ignores the strengths and weaknesses of Murphy and Tedisco themselves and assumes that New York's 20th district voters think like swing voters elsewhere.)

It's unclear whether such a winner will emerge. But no matter who wins--and no matter how long it takes--the losing party will be able to say, "yeah, well, it came down to a pretty slim margin, and there's a lot of time between now and November 2010."