Thursday, March 12, 2009

Don't make too much of NY-20

Some folks seem to want to turn the race for Kirsten Gillibrand's vacated House seat into some grand referendum on President Obama or Michael Steele or whatever. There will doubtless be a lot of spin one way or the other in that vein when the race is over.

Don't buy into it.

I guess I sort of learned that lesson the hard way. In February 2004 Ben Chandler won Ernie Fletcher's Congressional District in Kentucky. Then in June Stephanie Herseth won Bill Janklow's seat in South Dakota. Those were both pretty Republican districts and I thought those victories boded really well for Democrats in the fall.

They ended up accounting for 40% of the Democratic House pickups for the entire 2004 election cycle. Only three other seats shifted in a Democratic direction come November.

Now there are examples to the contrary- Kay Bailey Hutchison's special election blowout in Texas in 1993 might have presaged the Republican triumphs of 1994 and Harris Wofford's 1991 surprise victory in Pennsylvania over Richard Thornburgh was a preview of Democratic success in 1992. And Democrats did win some House seats they had no business getting in special elections last year.

Still, special elections with exceedingly low turnout tend to have a lot more to do with who the candidates are, local conditions, etc. If James Tedisco wins it doesn't mean America hates Barack Obama. And if Scott Murphy wins it doesn't mean the Republican Party should just fold. It just means the 60,000 or so people who bother to turn out in an area of upstate New York that represents 1/435th of the American population liked one guy more than another. I wouldn't necessarily take a whole lot more from it than that.

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