In a stunning upset, the race for New York’s 9th Congressional District, originally perceived as a slam-dunk for Democratic political machine candidate David Weprin, was won by Republican Bob Turner. Turner, a former TV executive and political novice, is the first Republican to represented the district – in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-1 margin – since 1923. And despite attempts by Democratic political operative to put the onus on Weprin for running a bad campaign, much like they did when Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown in Massachusetts, it is far likelier this vote is exactly what it was predicted to be: a referendum on Barack Obama and his dreadful handling of the economy.
The race was necessitated by the resignation of Anthony Weiner, now famous for the ”sexting” scandal that drove him from his seat. It was a precipitous fall for the former Congressman, who had relished his role as one of the Democratic Party’s high-profile media warriors and had designs on the mayorship of New York City. Yesterday it was revealed that Mr. Weiner was moving out of the neighborhood that sent him to Congress six times, re-locating to a rental apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The normally loquacious ex-Congressman refused to comment on either the move or his future plans. Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf underscored Weiner’s current reality. “He is gone from the game for the immediate future,” said Sheinfopf. “This move means no local office hopes.”
There are other things that may be gone in the immediate future. The 9th Congressional District itself is in jeopardy due to the reality that New York is losing two seats in the House of Representatives based on sluggish population growth reflected in the 2010 Census. The state’s population growth paled in comparison to other states, such as Texas, Idaho and Utah, where growth approached a robust 20 percent in recent years. The decline marks the seventh census in a row where New York has lost seats. Ironically, much of that loss has been directly attributable to the tax-and-spend policies championed by Democrats, which have saddled New Yorkers with either the first or second highest state-local tax burden in the nation for over three decades.
There is no question such policies, currently exacerbated by the president’s most recent pivot to jobs, was a critical factor in the race. Even though the 9th CD is largely white and middle class, it is likely a substantial number of voters recognized that the state with the 15th highest median household income in the nation, one in which the engine of their economy is Wall Street, would take a disproportional hit from a jobs plan financed primarily by raising taxes on people making $200,000-250,000. In New York City, such an income level is attainable by a policeman married to a teacher, neither of whom is likely to consider themselves “rich.”
This reality was reflected in a Siena College survey of the district released last Friday which revealed that 54 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable view of the president. Even more devastating, nearly three-in-four said the country was headed in the wrong direction. A Democratic poll was equally daunting. The president’s approval rating is down to 31 percent in a district Obama won by a 55 percent margin in 2008.
Largely as a result of this data, Weprin tried to distance himself from the president. Campaign literature distributed by the State Democratic Committee listed endorsements by several prominent state Democrats, including Gov. Cuomo and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Conversely, Mr. Obama’s name was nowhere to be found. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who stumped for Weprin last weekend, underscored Democratic concerns. ”If you want to send a message to Obama, call the White House,” she said. “If you want a great congressman that will fight for the district, vote for Weprin.”
Yet, as the race turned from a 48-42 Weprin lead to a 50-44 edge for Turner, it was Democrats desperately attempting to send a message to the voters immediately prior to the election. A race in which the candidates had raised a combined total of $654,755 by late August was hit with $500,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a final advertising campaign, and House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, spent at least $100,000 on an ad hammering Turner for his “Tea Party” ties. Democrats also enlisted party heavyweights Governor Cuomo and former President Bill Clinton to record robocalls for Weprin.
One of Weprin’s final ads was particularly tone-deaf. It showed a plane with the words “Bob Turner For Congress” on the side heading towards buildings. The ad was aired two days before the 10th commemoration of 9⁄11. It was quickly pulled, but it nonetheless incurred the wrath of Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), who crossed party lines to endorse Republican candidate Bob Turner. “Right before September 11th, this is the most irresponsible, despicable behavior. As a New Yorker, as a Democrat, I am calling on the other side to not just remove it as commercial, but I am asking for an apology to New Yorkers–it is Chutzpah, ultimate audacity,” he fumed.
Hikind’s endorsement of Turner, as well as that of former Mayor Ed Koch, who also crossed party lines to support the Republican, reflected the other significant issue in the race. In a letter to The New York Times, Koch noted that his support for Turner was “intended to send a message to President Obama that he cannot throw Israel under the bus with impunity.” Hikind echoed that sentiment saying he also wanted to “send a message to President Obama about his failed, disastrous economic policies and his reckless policies toward Israel.”
Both men were referring to Mr. Obama’s May 19th speech in which he contended that Israel should retreat to its pre-1967 borders in order to facilitate a Middle East peace agreement. The New York Post’s John Podhoretz noted that while the “Jewish vote may be decisive in this one district, the Jewish voter is another matter” with respect to the 2012 election, in terms of both fundraising and the swing states of Pennsylvania and Florida. Podhoretz contends that a switch of one-third of the Jewish vote in either or both states, or Jews not voting at all, would make Mr. Obama’s re-election virtually impossible. Irony number two: Weprin is an Orthodox Jew, and Bob Turner is a Catholic.
Another issue that may have cost Weprin some votes from Orthodox Jews was his support for the gay marriage initiative approved by the state legislature.
In some last minute intrigue, the Washington Times reported late Tuesday afternoon that the Turner campaign, fearing vote fraud, intended to have the ballot impounded immediately after the polls closed. “Last night [Monday] we filed with one of the judges and then today we were attempting to serve Weprin. We served the board of elections last night to this morning. I’m not too sure of the timing of it,” said Turner campaign manager E. O’Brien Murray. “There’s been significant evidence of election fraud occurring. There have been in at least five occurrences of deceased individuals receiving absentee ballots, which cannot happen legally. Other people who have not applied for absentee ballots have received ballots, which is against the law in New York State. They haven’t even applied for them, but they received them,” he added.
At 11:30 PM, the Associated Press cited “problems” with reporting results. The AP noted that last year, New York replaced outdated lever-operated voting machines with paper ballots and optical scanners, which take longer to process.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Shortly before midnight, both The Atlantic and the Washington Post gave the election to Turner. With over half the districts reporting, Turner was leading 53 percent to 47 percent over Weprin. Nate Silver of The New York Times tweeted, ”A crude extrapolation from borough-wide results would have Turner winning this by about 10 points.”
A crude extrapolation is something Democrats are likely to attempt in order to downplay the significance of this loss. No doubt they will say a special election doesn’t hold much significance with respect to the broader picture. Yet considering how much they were willing to read into New York’s last special election, when Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin in New York’s 26th Congressional District by a 47-42 percent margin, such attempts will ring exceedingly hollow.
Bottom line: Democrats may be in more trouble than they imagine heading into 2012. And it’s becoming clear the primary source of that trouble is the man occupying the Oval Office.