There is some commentary today telling everyone to invest the outcome of the NY-20 special election with very little significance. That’s reasonable up to a point, as all special elections are quirky, not necessarily representative of broader trends and often turn on the qualities of the candidates, but then the same can be said for a lot of House races. Depending on the cycle, House elections can be won on national themes, or elections turn on local issues in ways that defy patterns. It is natural for both sides to lower expectations in a close race, and the GOP candidate is so intent on lowering expectations that he has apparently already filed a motion to challenge the outcome after internal polling confirmed earlier Siena polling that the Democrat, Scott Murphy, was pulling ahead.

Taken in isolation, this outcome wouldn’t matter much. But if Murphy does win it will mean that an out-of-state transplant made up a 20-point deficit against a fixture of regional politics in less than six weeks, and he will have done it in a district where Republicans enjoy a registration advantage of many tens of thousands (71,000 to be exact, which is approximately 25% of the size of the 2008 turnout). When Ogonowski lost a special election for MA-05 in a landslide, there were more than a few Republicans who went wild at how well he had done in a House special election in deep-blue Massachusetts. In that case, Ogonowski’s smaller-than-expected margin of defeat was supposed to signal a Republican resurgence in 2008 (which did not happen), which was never very credible, but are we really supposed to believe that a Democratic win in a traditionally Republican district in a special election doesn’t say something significant about the political fortunes of the GOP? When Gillibrand won in 2006, it could be written off as part of a wave and a reaction against Sweeney’s scandals, and when Gillibrand was re-elected and Obama carried the district it could be written off to some extent as part of another wave and a reaction against the financial crisis and recession, but if the Democrats hold the seat for the third time that begins to suggest a pattern. It may mean that the GOP’s strongholds in the hinterlands of the Northeast, already disappearing in New Hampshire, are also eroding in upstate New York.

What one doesn’t normally see is nonpartisan observers going to great lengths to deny the race’s significance, but this is what Charlie Cook does. However, he does this in a very odd way. This is how he starts his summary:

This is a historically Republican area that has become problematic for the GOP in recent years. President Obama’s popularity — he carried the district by 3 points — is helping to offset some of the longstanding GOP leanings. There is an experienced and established Republican against a Democratic newcomer to the area. Both sides have spent generously, though not at the break-the-bank levels of last year’s special elections.

Mind you, the NRCC has spent more, and independent Republican PACs have spent more than their counterparts, and the DCCC has not made that big of a push because of its existing debt problems in ’08. The Republicans have had the advantage of the well-known, experienced candidate, and the district is so traditionally Republican, as Cook himself points out, that it never voted for Roosevelt for statewide or national office and went for Bush both times. There are other districts like that somewhere in the country, in rural Idaho and parts of Utah maybe. If you wanted to make the argument that the outcome of this election isn’t very important, highlighting its strong Republican history and leanings isn’t the best way to go about it. In essence, what Cook is saying is that NY-20 used to be reliably Republican, and between the backlash against the GOP and Obama’s election this has been changing. How can we not see another Republican defeat in NY-20 as evidence of something more than a quirky special election outcome?

Update: John Cole and DougJ at Balloon Juice have more. I agree that the closing of the gap between Tedisco and Murphy was the result of increasing name recognition for Murphy, who was bound to start pretty far behind as a newcomer. It was ironically the national Republicans’ anti-Murphy ad campaign that helped improve Murphy’s name recognition so dramatically. One thing I neglected to mention in this post was that Michael Steele may not last very long as RNC Chairman if Tedisco loses. This will be somewhat unfair for Steele, as it is the NRCC that screwed up the campaign so badly. By all rights, Rep. Pete “Taliban as Model for Insurgency” Sessions, who runs the NRCC, is the one who should have to pay the price for a Tedisco loss. I would add as a final note that the NRCC managed to take a candidate who had all the local advantages that Travis Childers had as a Democrat in MS-01, and they managed to turn Tedisco into a generic Republican who will probably end up losing.

Second Update: With all precincts reporting, Murphy has an extremely slender lead of 65 votes that is almost sure to be eliminated by absentee ballots. The GOP may end up dodging a bullet on this one.