Opinion: Obama vs. Steele: Mano a mano over Tuesday’s congressional election in New York

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President Obama has not been in office 100 days and already both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up to test his popularity.

The first bellwether could come Tuesday when New York holds a special election to fill NY20 -- the congressional seat of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).You may recall that Gillibrand was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the unexpired Senate term of former first lady, former senator, former presidential candidate and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.


Once a stronghold for the Republicans, the district has been tilting moderate for several years. Now the once long-shot Democrat has pulled into a statistical tie, and the Democratic National Committee is pulling out the big gun -- running an ad broadcasting Obama’s support.

More than most, the race has become a direct referendum on Obama’s policies. Democrat Scott Murphy, 39, blasts Republican Jim Tedisco, 58, for opposing the president’s $787-billion economic stimulus plan. Tedisco responds by attacking Murphy for supporting a bill that in the end allowed AIG executives to receive millions of dollars in bonuses.

As the sparring heated up this week, the White House weighed in. In an e-mail to 50,000 activists in the area, Obama said Murphy has ‘the kind of experience and background’ needed in Washington.

Today I’m announcing my support for Scott Murphy, candidate for New York’s 20th Congressional District. He’s created jobs by building and growing small businesses while bringing people together to address difficult challenges. He supports the economic recovery plan we’ve put in place, and I know we can count on him as an ally for change.

Obama has a lot on the line in this special election, but no one has more at stake than the Republican National Committee’s embattled chairman, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. After a few unforced errors on assuming office -- butting heads with conservative icon Rush Limbaugh, telling an interviewer that abortion is a personal choice -- Steele has called the contest in NY20 ‘a priority.’

This conservative, upstate district voted for Obama. But if Tedisco loses, look for a fresh round of calls for Steele’s head. As the National Journal’s Amy Walter put it:


Whether a loss here would be enough to get the anti-Steele members of the RNC engaged to call for his ouster is unclear (there are rumors swirling that it would). But it would certainly be another day of bad press for a chairman who can’t afford many more before it starts to take a toll on his ability to be an effective fundraiser and communicator (the two most important requirements for a national party chairman).

-- Johanna Neuman

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Chart: Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee