How special is the special election?

HOW SPECIAL IS THE SPECIAL ELECTION?…. Today’s special election in New York’s 20th congressional district, filling a vacancy left by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), is getting quite a bit of attention. For election junkies going through withdrawal, the race offers a very competitive contest.

But as voters head to the polls, it’s probably wise to consider what this race isn’t. CNN reports today that the special election has “national implications.” CQ notes that campaign “has been described as a litmus test, a referendum and a bellwether for Democratic agendas and Republican political fortunes.”

The NYT‘s Adam Nagourney walks back the hype a bit.

Even before a vote was cast, the contest has been freighted with all kinds of political significance — an early test of President Obama’s political strength, a verdict on the stimulus package, a do-or-die moment for a new Republican national chairman, an early sign of how the 2010 midterm elections are going to go (never mind that they are 20 months way). […]

In truth, special elections tend to get more attention and analysis than they deserve (guilty, your honor), and while they might briefly raise or lower the political temperature, they tend not to be predictive of much at all. And in this case, there are many extraneous factors at play, and there is enough conflicting data about the political dynamics of the race to permit either side to make at least a plausible argument that it will win.

“The first thing you can count on is this thing is going to be way overspun,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman and onetime head of the Republican campaign committee in the House. “I don’t think it portends a thing for the midterms. But it emboldens whoever wins.”

Realistically, Jim Tedisco has to be considered the favorite for one simple reason: he’s the Republican in a Republican district. As recently as 2006, GOP voter registrations in the district outnumbered Democratic registrations by 15 points. Sure, Gillibrand won, but she ran as a very moderate Democrat, and only eked out a victory after news surfaced that the Republican incumbent’s wife had called 911 to report domestic violence.

What’s more, the GOP, desperate for some good news, have invested heavily in this special election, in support of a well-known leader in the state legislature (the Democrat, Scott Murphy, moved to the district three years ago and has enjoyed far less name recognition).

The race is too close to call, which necessarily makes it pretty interesting. It becomes all the more fascinating to watch with national figures and the national parties weighing in. That said, it’s a stretch to think the results will offer key insights into the larger political landscape.

No matter who wins, it’s a local special election with low turnout, not a national referendum.