Democrat Scott Murphy knew the mid-September poll that showed him 17 points ahead of Republican opponent Chris Gibson in New York’s 20th District congressional race was only a mirage. “We had a double-digit lead when no one knew my opponent,” said Murphy after his concession speech on Election Day. “We always knew this would be a close election.”
Actually, Gibson won with a comfortable 10-percent lead over Murphy—too big a margin to be called close. How did a relatively unknown contender gain enough momentum inside of six weeks to capture a decisive victory?
Historically a Republican district, the 20th has 41 percent Republican enrollment and 27 Democratic. Murphy’s predecessor, now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, was the first Democrat to be elected to the 20th in recent memory. Murphy won her seat against Republican Jim Tedisco in a special election in 2009 after she vacated it to fill Hillary Clinton’s empty U.S. Senate seat. Tedisco was faulted at the time for running a flawed campaign.
However, Murphy faced a palpable anti-incumbent sentiment in his bid for reelection. While most Democrats running for statewide office went largely unscathed in this regard, Murphy was not so lucky.
“It was difficult to believe until you understood that in the special election there was a number of Republicans that had voted for him and they had obviously deserted him,” said Thilo Ullman, chairman of the Saratoga County Democrats. Ullman said Republican strategists exploited key weaknesses in Murphy’s position. He was a Democrat serving in a Republican district who voted for President Obama’s health-care bill that was unpopular even among some of his peers. Ullman said Murphy’s stance on health care was enough to pull his Republican supporters back to their side of the aisle.
Gibson also had considerable financial backing from the Republican Congressional Committee and associated Republican PACs, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the 60 Plus Association. Together these three PACs spent $1.74 million on Gibson’s campaign.
In September, Salon.com reported that Rove’s American Crossroads PAC is largely funded by billionaires. Ninety-one percent of the $2.6 million raised by American Crossroads in August was gifted by just three people. Prior to August, they had raised $4.7 million, of which 97 percent was donated by four billionaires with ties to various business sectors including the oil and gas industries. Overall, American Crossroads has spent $38 million ($14 million shy of their pledge) on the 2010 midterm elections, all of it going to benefit Republican candidates. American Crossroads gave $447,366 to Gibson’s campaign.
The 60 Plus Organization’s website claims to be a nonpartisan PAC aimed at looking out for seniors’ interests on multiple fronts including health care and social security. However, 100 percent of the $7 million the PAC spent in the 2010 midterm elections went to benefit Republican candidates. The 60 Plus Association seeks to repeal health care and is a member of the Cooler Heads Initiative, a subgroup of the Competitive Enterprise Institute—a Washington-based think tank that opposes climate-change legislation and is funded in part by companies such as Exxon Mobil and Pfizer. The 60 Plus Organization gave $516,437 to Gibson’s campaign.
“The Republicans, very astutely, reserved their main effort for the last few weeks of the campaign,” said Chairman Ullman. “They put the whole machine in gear.” Ullman said that Gibson will toe the Republican line all the way, attempting to repeal health-care reform and extend tax cuts to the wealthy. He noted the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that enabled corporations and unions to donate unlimited sums to PACs who then funnel the money to favored candidates. The ad blitz seen by the Gibson campaign at the end of the 20th race was one case of this decision being played out on the electoral stage, he said. “The barrage of outside paid advertising was an absolute tsunami,” said Ullman. “There was no way any reasonable message could come out of that enormous barrage of ads.”
Indeed, another Siena poll conducted six weeks after the one giving Murphy a 17-point lead showed Murphy trailing Gibson by nine points. “Certainly I’m surprised at the size of the swing,” said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg. However, Greenberg does not attribute Gibson’s win solely to the financial clout of his backers. “There was a very vigorous, active campaign on both sides of the aisle,” said Greenberg. Murphy did, however, face more attack ads than any other member of Congress in this election.
“That’s what campaigns are all about, educating voters,” said Greenberg. “At the start of the campaign Gibson was largely unknown to the majority of voters in the 20th Congressional District and a lot . . . of money was spent on both sides.”
WAMC host and political pundit Alan Chartock had a similar view. He wrote in an e-mail that, while money helps, it didn’t buy the election for either candidate. Quoting the timeworn adage that ties successful politicians to their constituent’s concerns, Chartock concluded that “all politics are local.”