The people of New York's 20th Congressional District, one of those that borders my own 21st District, thought they'd have a new Representative today. April Fool! The election is too close to call, with Scott Murphy the Democrat leading by less than 100 votes out of approximately 150,000 cast, and thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted. The counting may take another two weeks as officials await ballots from military people from overseas. If the absentees leave things roughly the same, with Murphy ahead by a sliver, supporters of Jim Tedisco the Republican will almost certainly demand a recount.
It's a fitting finish, however protracted to a campaign that saw both leading candidates do their best to obscure their party identifications. It's also further proof, by way of contrast, of the power of incumbency. Absent an incumbent, the Democrat and the Republican are nose to nose, but last November, on the strength of just one term in office, the Democratic incumbent, the current Senator Gillibrand, buried a GOP challenger in a landslide -- and this was a district that had been entrenched Republican turf until Gillibrand came along.
You could argue that Gillibrand didn't stick around long enough to consolidate Democratic loyalty in her district, and that Scott Murphy suffered for his obscurity compared to "Albany politician" Tedisco. But before anyone jumps to conclude that this was a vote of less confidence in the Democracy, remember the way Murphy was portrayed in Republican negative ads. He was not portrayed as a free-spending liberal or some kook from outside the mainstream. Instead, he was almost always "Millionaire Scott Murphy," a corporate creep who outsourced jobs and enabled bonuses for undeserving executives, and a friend of AIG. Only toward the end was Murphy identified with the usual liberal sins of "job-killing taxes" and the like, but this was always also in the context of his being essentially an insensitive Wall Street type. Likewise, Murphy hardly campaigned as a conventional liberal Democrat, apart from prodding a reluctant Tedisco to take a stand on the stimulus bill. Instead, he played the archetypal populist "outsider" while attacking Tedisco as a career politician who milked the system for his own benefit. As a result of these tactics on both sides, the campaign has become less a referendum on the President, as the national media would like to see it, than a referendum on Murphy himself, the stranger struggling to define himself against pseudo-populist attacks from the Tedisco camp. But the further we get from the actual campaign, the more the media will spin the eventual result beyond recognition, so that someone will say, should Tedisco win, that it was a rebuke to the Obama administration. That will be an April Fool too, whenever you hear it.