- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One lesson from the still-undecided special election Tuesday for an upstate New York congressional seat is that bashing Wall Street is a loser for Republicans. It’s a populist election strategy that must be abandoned.

Tuesday’s election should have been an outright win for Republican candidate Jim Tedisco. He started the race with a double-digit lead, but now Democrat Scott Murphy enjoys a 59-vote advantage while thousands of absentee ballots are uncounted. The race is viewed as a bellwether on the future of the Republican Party and the first real test of congressional candidates in the Obama presidency. If so, the future is not terribly bright for the Republicans.

We applaud Mr. Tedisco for championing tax cuts and slashing Washington waste. But even in an era suspicious of corporate finance, his populist anti-Wall Street rhetoric is unlikely to sit well with core Republican voters or many independents. “I’ll keep fighting for the folks on Main Street and standing up against the greed on Wall Street because this is one fight worth fighting,” Mr. Tedisco said during the weekend.

This message undoubtedly polled well, but it might confuse core conservative voters. Just who is the liberal Democrat in this race? Such efforts at populist appeal generally haven’t worked for Republicans.

Top Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, are spinning the vote count as a positive. They say it means a surefire win in a district that Democratic candidates have carried for the last several cycles after decades of Republican dominance. But a win via absentee ballot count is not a major victory.

A close split in voters should also have been expected. Several Republican insiders said privately that generic ballot polling in the district never exceeded an even split in support for a candidate from either party. This is despite the best efforts of both party machines, including a last-minute and halfhearted ad run of President Obama endorsing Mr. Murphy.

The competing messaging efforts from both candidates and outside groups also reached a point of saturation that political analysts say results in most voters turning a deaf ear. The Republican Party and GOP-aligned groups arguably helped contribute the most to this by heavily outspending the Democratic Party and Democratic interest groups by about $450,000. More than $2.7 million was spent overall. Some senior Republican staff in the House already are complaining about such large sums being spent on an uncertain outcome.

A chance also remains for this contest to end up in court. With the obvious exception of the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, the history of races being decided by judges is not great for Republicans.

Mr. Tedisco may win, but if the Republican Party doesn’t learn valuable lessons from this race, many could not go their way in 2010.

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