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First thoughts: New York state of mind

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro

*** New York state of mind: Ready or not, the campaign season -- for 2009, 2010, and 2012 -- essentially begins today with the first competitive race of Obama's presidency: the special congressional election in upstate New York (NY-20) between Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco. As we've said before, this contest has it all. It has become a battle over the economic stimulus (Murphy supports it, while Tedisco opposes it); in some form or fashion, it has featured national figures (Obama, Michael Steele, Sarah Palin, even Pat Boone); it will be an early test of the GOP's health in the post-Bush era (if Republicans can't win this slightly GOP-leaning district, where else can they win?); and it will be an early test of Obama's coattails (if the Democrats lose, Republicans will see it as a sign of the end of the president's honeymoon). Oh, and one other thing: The race is about as close as it can get it. Analysts say it's a toss-up, with a recent Siena Research Institute poll showing Murphy ahead by four points (47%-43%), after trailing Tedisco by four points in early March (45%-41%) and 12 points in February (46%-34%). Polling places open at 6:00 am ET and close at 9:00 pm ET. 

*** A little caution for pundits: Our gut tells us that a dead heat probably slightly favors the Dems, only because their turnout operation is probably better than the GOP's. Then again, a super low turnout favors the GOP because the most reliable voters in this district skew Republican. But for all of us who will no doubt over-interpret tonight's results, political analyst Charlie Cook gives some important advice in his CongressDaily column today: "Assuming that the margin in this upstate contest to fill the seat of newly-appointed Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is three or four points or less, my advice is to respond 'that's nice,' then yawn, and walk away… What is more important is if there is a uniform direction to several odd-year elections. If, for example, Republicans were to win tonight and knock off Gov. Jon Corzine in New Jersey in November, and pick up the open governor seat in Virginia, then it is fair to say that they will have exorcised the demons of 2006 and 2008." More Cook: "If Democrats hold NY-20 as well as New Jersey and Virginia, they can enter 2010 knowing that even if the wind isn't at their backs, there also isn't a headwind."

*** A significant day: No doubt we're all getting a bit numb to bailouts, emergency government action, and major announcements from this new president. But don't let this numbness obscure the fact that yesterday might be one of the five- or ten-most significant moments when the history of the Obama presidency is written in either 2013 or 2017. He didn't just fire any CEO; he fired the head of an American industrial icon. And let's not forget the decision to make the White House the center of auto policy for this country. Some on the left are hitting Obama for not firing more CEOs, while the right is hitting him for looking like a nationalist or a government interventionist. But it is also worth noting the critiques on this auto plan were somewhat muted. The reason: It was a very well-executed rollout. In fact, it's in stark contrast of all the other bailout announcements that have taken place so far. Here's perhaps why: Every detail of this auto plan seemed to be communicated so well. There's an auto task force (is there one for AIG?); there's an auto czar (is there one for the banks?); there were more strings attached to GM and Chrysler (are there strings for the banks?); and there was the appointment of a disaster recovery czar (have we seen anything like that regarding, say, folks who have seen their 401ks disappear?).

Video: NBC's Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd discusses the political significance of President Obama's aggressive auto plan.

*** London calling: The big White House news today, of course, is President Obama's trip to London for the G-20. The president and first lady already departed from Andrews Air Force Base earlier this morning, and they will arrive in London later this this afternoon (ET). And with his departure comes a brand-new Washington Post/ABC poll showing the president with a 66% approval rating, and a 60% approval rating on the economy. Also before Obama lands in Europe, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports that Moscow sent a message to Washington yesterday that President Medvedev is interested in a broad agreement with the Obama administration on the major disputed issues between Russia and the U.S. -- including missile defense and Iran. Medvedev has a Washington Post op-ed making the same point.

Video: The global economy tops President Obama's agenda as he heads to the G20 Summit in London, his first trip to Europe as president. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports.

*** With friends like these…: Turning to the current budget battle, President Obama met behind closed doors with House Democrats yesterday, and Obama's visit went pretty well, according to NBC's Mike Viqueira and other news accounts. But writing in the New Republic, Jon Chait raises this interesting question: Why have recent Democratic presidents (Carter, Clinton, and now Obama) received less deference from congressional Democrats than GOP presidents have received from congressional Republicans? "George W. Bush came to office having lost the popular vote, with only 50 Republicans in the Senate… [Still,] Bush managed to enact several rounds of tax cuts that substantially exceeded those in his campaign platform, along with two war resolutions, a Medicare prescription drug benefit designed to maximize profits for the health care industry, energy legislation, education reform, and sundry other items." Meanwhile, "Obama has come into office having won the popular vote by seven percentage points, along with a 79-seat edge in the House, a 17-seat edge in the Senate, and massive public demand for change. But it's already clear he is receiving less, not more, deference from his own party."

*** Just what the doctor ordered? Besides the work on the budget, the other big news on Capitol Hill today will be HHS nominee Kathleen Sebelius' appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee (which is a courtesy hearing because it doesn't approve her nomination; the Senate Finance Committee does). In her opening statement, Sebelius will say that health-care reform must occur this year. "Inaction is not an option. The status quo is unacceptable, and unsustainable."

*** That's "special": Turning back to NY-20… With tonight's Murphy-Tedisco contest being the first competitive House race of Obama's presidency, our friends at the Cook Political Report and Rothenberg Political Report take us on a trip down memory lane. The first special congressional election in Bush 41's term was to fill Dan Coat's (R) seat in Indiana, after Dan Quayle became VP and Coats filled his Senate seat. Jill Long (D) won that contest, so the seat flipped. The first special congressional election in Clinton's term was for Mike Espy's seat, but the first competitive one was in Wisconsin, where Peter Barca (D) barely beat Mark Neumann (R) to replace Les Aspin (D) in Congress; Neumann beat Barca in the '94 general. And the first special in Bush 43's term was when Bill Shuster (R) took his dad's seat in Pennsylvania in a surprisingly close race against Scott Conklin (D). The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman makes this other point about recent special elections: What made Herseth/Diedrich ('04), Schmidt/Hackett ('06), Foster/Oberweis ('08), Childers/Davis ('08) so notable is that these districts were so heavily D or R, and the seat flipped or the race was surprisingly close. By contrast, NY-20 is pretty competitive (registered Republicans outnumber Democrats, but Obama won 51% there in November), and probably won't tell us much about the national climate -- at least not yet.

*** Show me the money: And just to give you an idea how much activity has taken in this special election for the NY-20 congressional seat, ad-tracker Evan Tracey notes that nearly $2 million have been spent on TV ads. Interestingly, Democrats have slightly outspent the Republicans -- $1,053,141 for the Dems ($716,731 by Murphy, $336,410 by DCCC, DNC, SEIU) vs. $924,112 for the Republicans ($485,697 by Tedisco and $567,444 by other GOP entities and groups). It's striking that the GOP outside groups have outspent Tedisco's campaign. Also worth pointing out, the DCCC says it has spent nearly $600,000 versus $817,000 for the NRCC, and the DNC has spent some $20,000 versus $280,000 for the RNC.

Countdown to Obama's 100th day: 29 days 
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 63 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 70 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 217 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 581 days

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