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Riding the anti-Wall Street wave to Congress?

Today's special election in New York has become an early referendum on Obama's handling of the financial crisis. The Republican is counting on voter outrage. Will it work?

March 31, 2009|James Oliphant

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — On a rain-spitting Sunday in Lake Placid, Republican Jim Tedisco was out fanning the flames of voter outrage.

Tedisco is running for an open congressional seat here and has combined the hot-button issues of the day -- executive bonuses, the economic stimulus package, Wall Street bailouts -- into a drum-pounding campaign message against the Democrats.

"The last thing we need [in Washington] is a rubber stamp," he said. "It's been kind of a shopping spree, it seems."

The longtime state legislator who sounds more pugnacious than polished has become the vehicle of a broader message -- that Republicans are the only hope to derail the White House's economic agenda.

Because of that, today's election has been transformed into a bit of an early national referendum on President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress.

"Given that this is a swing district, this is as a good a referendum on Obama's early days and the lack of a GOP program as one might find," said Bruce Berg, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York City.

Republican groups have invested more than $2 million into the race in an attempt to break the tide that swept Obama into office and solidified the Democratic hold on Congress. On Thursday, the president jumped into the fray by formally endorsing Tedisco's opponent, political newcomer Scott Murphy.

Murphy and Tedisco, 58, are running to succeed conservative Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who was named in January to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Murphy, 39, who moved to the district from Manhattan three years ago, has touted himself as an entrepreneur and creator of jobs. He has embraced the president's stimulus package, saying it will bring 76,000 jobs to the region.

On Monday, Murphy visited a diner outside Hudson Falls, N.Y., where TV crews nearly outnumbered the patrons. He talked up the benefits of the stimulus bill, the national attention his candidacy has received and his improvement in the polls.

"That's what people are responding to," he said. "They want solutions to this economic mess, and that's why we've been gaining ground."

In Lake Placid, Tedisco was trailed by a tiny entourage, and only some of the people he met even knew about the election.

With some, though, Tedisco's message resonated. Peter Holderied, whose family owns the Golden Arrow Hotel in Lake Placid, said he was dismayed by Obama's economic stimulus bill, passed by the Democratic Congress in February.

"It's unreal," he said, shaking his head. "People are just getting wind of what this is going to cost us."

Down the street, Bob Bagg, who runs a wine and liquor store, said Obama doesn't care about small business.

"I think everyone should wake up and smell the coffee about what is going on," Bagg said. "I feel Obama is working for Wall Street."

Tedisco, who has served in New York's General Assembly for 27 years, has ridden that populist, anti-Wall Street message hard, painting Murphy, who made millions as a venture capitalist, as an out-of-touch creature of the financial sector.

In essence, the dynamic that existed during last year's election cycle has been stood on its head. The way Tedisco portrays it, two months into Obama's administration, Democrats are now the overreaching party, a friend to big business. Republicans like himself are the grass-roots fighters, trying to bring change.

But Tedisco's campaign isn't much of an insurgency. Gillibrand's win here in 2006 was viewed as a major upset. The district has a solid Republican majority; the late Gerald Solomon, a popular Republican, held the seat for 20 years.

That should make Tedisco the favorite. For much of this brief campaign, he was, but that seems to have changed.

The latest poll, released Friday and conducted by nearby Siena College, showed Murphy up by 4 points. Tedisco led by 12 points in the same poll a month ago.

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joliphant@tribune.com

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