WASHINGTON – A special election Tuesday in New York could tell a lot about the shape of next year’s congressional contests.
Can Democrats hold on to President Barack Obama’s big majority in Congress? Or will Republicans begin clawing their way back in the Northeast, and in Congress, by capitalizing on doubts about Obama’s spending priorities?
Democrats control the House, 254-178, with three vacancies, including New York’s 20th District, a largely rural swath in the eastern part of the state where Tuesday’s election will be held.
Next year, when all 435 House members are up for election, Democrats appear to have more seats in difficult territory to defend.
Fifty Democrats represent districts won by Republican presidential candidate John McCain last November, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly. Nearly half – 23 – of those 50 have been in office two terms or less, historically the most vulnerable incumbents. Republicans hold 37 districts won by Obama.
Democrats also confront unfavorable trends: New presidents usually lose House seats in the midterm election. In 2002, George W. Bush became the first president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 to see his party gain House seats in the middle of his first term. The previous Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton, saw his party lose control of Congress in the Republican midterm revolution of 1994.
But Republicans were demoralized by their losses in November, and so far eight of their members have decided to leave the House for other offices, with others pondering such a move.
Democrats say they won’t be on the defensive.
“We understand that history is against us,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But our best defense is an extremely strong offense.”
As an example, she pointed out that the DCCC has already run three rounds of issue-based ads in potential 2010 battleground districts.
The political atmosphere for next year is even harder than normal to predict.
Obama was the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and his 53 percent was more than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. By the numbers, Obama entered office as the most formidable Democratic president in two generations.
But he also confronts serious economic challenges and if progress is not evident by mid-2010, his party’s electoral gains of ’08 could be history.
Tuesday’s New York special election is to fill a vacancy created when Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, then a congresswoman, was picked to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate.
The national political parties and allied groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads, and both sides expect a close outcome in the race between Jim Tedisco, the Republican state assembly leader, and Democratic venture capitalist Scott Murphy.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg believes the results will tell whether Republicans have begun to shake the funk of the 2008 elections, when they lost the White House and Democrats moved to pre-1994 majorities in the House and Senate.
“I am not sure what it will tell us about 2010, but it will certainly be a snapshot of now and tell us whether things have changed from 2008,” Rothenberg said. “We will know whether the Republicans have been able to turn the page on 2008.”
Democrats have been trying to paint Tedisco as part of a Republican status quo that voters rejected in November. Murphy is running as a change agent tied firmly to Obama, and he highlights his support of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill.
Republicans have tried to tie Murphy to the ills on Wall Street and see him as a conduit for rising doubts about Obama’s spending priorities and budget deficits.
Republicans also see regional symbolism. Once a stronghold for the GOP in Congress, the Northeast is now a virtual wasteland for Republican House representation.
The national GOP has spent more $300,000 buying ads in the district.
Paul Lindsay, deputy communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said: “Look, we will not be successful as a party unless we expand the playing field in regions like the Northeast, and our investment in this special election is proof of that,”
E-mail Gannett national writer Chuck Raasch at email@example.com.