04/01/2009 12:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What the NY-20 Special Election Means for the Midterms

The race to fill the Congressional seat left vacant by Hillary Clinton's Senate replacement is too close to call, with Democrat Scott Murphy ahead of Jim Tedisco by only 65 votes. Absentee ballots have yet to be added to the tally, suggesting the race will almost certainly hinge on which candidate built a better absentee organization.

Republican leaders have tried to frame the race as a referendum on Obama, suggesting that a loss for Democrats would signal some kind of vindication for Republican opposition to the Obama presidency. In reality, Republicans may unknowingly dodged a bullet if Scott Murphy holds his lead. Nothing could endanger the long-term health of the GOP more than a little misunderstood positive reinforcement. Believing that the special election did anything to justify their continued political missteps would have been a serious mistake. After all, the seat wasn't exactly a Democratic stronghold.

The seat vacated by Kristen Gillibrand was traditionally a Republican district. Gillibrand's win in 2006 grew out of a perfect storm of events - disapproval over the war in Iraq boosted Democrats nationwide; her political ideology matched that of her district; and seven months before Election Day, her opponent stumbled into a frat party after getting hammered at a bar. Yikes.

Regardless of the outcome in the special election, the results, as they currently stand, tell an important story, one which might echo all the way to the midterms. After two landslides, the big question in the next election cycle will be whether Democrats will be able to hold onto the most conservative seats they picked up in 2006 and 2008. There are a number of seats that ended up in Democratic hands in ways that just won't repeat themselves. In 2008, Democrat Tom Perriello picked off Virgil Goode in Virginia in an extremely conservative district. But in 2010, without an Obama campaign investing unprecedented dollars into turnout operations in Virginia, does he have a chance to hold the seat? If the NY-20 tells us anything, it's that Democrats like Tom Perriello might be alright after all.

The NY-20 may never have ended up in the Democratic column without a Republican incumbent with a drinking problem. It's just far too conservative, and is exactly the kind of seat that would be primed for the Republicans to retake, especially in an open seat race.

The fact that a Democrat either won the seat or came close to winning it says something about how surprisingly strong a hold Democrats have on conservative districts. The DCCC has to feel positive about the results here. In a district with 71,000 more Republicans than Democrats, it's clear the Democratic party is defending a durable majority.

The race also suggests that the unanimous opposition by the GOP to the economic stimulus bill could be very costly during the 2010 midterms. After two weeks of equivocation, Jim Tedisco ultimately opposed the stimulus bill and saw his poll numbers plummet soon after. Once ahead by fourteen points, Tedisco eventually trailed by four in the final poll before the election.

It is certainly possible that the stimulus vote will be two years too old to be good fodder for the midterms. But if the economy has shown significant signs of improvement, if the Democrats are able to argue - with convincing proof - that their policies are actually fixing the economy, then the consequence of opposing the stimulus bill could mean a devastating election, for a third cycle in a row.