Republicans on Tuesday night captured the New York City House seat vacated by scandal-scarred Congressman Anthony Weiner, winning a special election in a Democratic district that has grown disillusioned with President Obama and weary of the stagnant economy.
With nearly 70% of precincts reporting, Republican Bob Turner led Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin 53% to 47%, spurring the Associated Press to call the contest. The Ninth District, which includes swaths of Brooklyn and Queens, is among the city’s most conservative — Obama captured 55% of the vote in 2008, slightly more than the 53% he notched nationwide — but had been a Democratic stronghold for nearly 90 years. The party enjoys a 3-to-1 edge in voter registration in the district.
The win punctuated a banner day for the GOP, which also coasted in a Tuesday night special election for the Nevada congressional seat opened when former Republican Representative Dean Heller was tapped to replace GOP Sen. John Ensign, who like Weiner resigned in scandal this year. With 44% of precincts reporting, Republican Mark Amodei held a double-digit lead over Democrat Kate Marshall.
While the Nevada victory was expected, snatching a seat deep in Democratic territory was the true prize for the GOP. “This is not a district that Republicans have any right to believe that we can win,” House Speaker John Boehner said earlier Tuesday. The remark was meant to manage expectations, but it was also true. Turner, 70, a retired television executive best known for creating the “Jerry Springer Show,” was routed by Weiner last year in Turner’s only past foray into politics. He prevailed on Tuesday despite the frenzied ground game Democrats mounted in an attempt to salvage the race pundits have cast as a rebuke to Obama’s policies.
The President’s approval rating has plunged into the 30s in the district. In an area that includes large pockets of conservative Orthodox Jews, the 55-year-old Weprin — who is himself Orthodox — was hurt by his vote in favor of New York’s gay-marriage law. “There’s only one reason David Weprin is in trouble in race for a very safe Democratic seat: His support for same-sex marriage,” wrote Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, which forked over $75,000 to defeat Weprin. In a recent Public Policy Polling survey, 29% of respondents said gay marriage was a very important issue. The Democrat’s fundraising advantage was nearly erased by the cash poured in by pro-Republican groups, who outspent their Democratic counterparts $976,000 to $677,000, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Another factor was the perception that Turner was the stauncher ally of Israel. Turner, who was endorsed by Democratic former New York City mayor Ed Koch and Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, capitalized on the issue, calling the race a referendum on Obama’s Israel policy and running inflammatory ads that misconstrued Weprin’s support for an Islamic community center and prayer space near Ground Zero. In a statement congratulating Turner, Speaker Boehner called the win a “strong warning” that it was time to end Democrats’ “misguided policies on Israel.”
So how should we interpret the results? Democrats argue Weprin was a weak candidate, one of the few eager to follow Weiner in a district that’s highly likely to be dissolved in redistricting. His missteps cost him an atypical district that’s more conservative than its history of Democratic dominance suggests. But Republicans are also right to say Obama was an albatross for the Democrat.
As I wrote on Tuesday, special elections are often spun as bellwethers but are rarely harbingers of a national trend. (As Nate Silver points out, Democrats won seven of nine specials ahead of the 2010 elections, and you remember how those turned out.) “Special elections are always difficult — they are low turnout, high intensity races,” DCCC chairman Steve Israel said in a statement. “The results in NY-09 are not reflective of what will happen in November 2012 when Democratic challengers run against Republican incumbents who voted to end Medicare and cut Social Security while protecting tax loopholes for big corporations and the ultra wealthy.”
But just months after this argument propelled Democrats to an upset victory in a heavily contested special election in upstate New York last spring, it did little Tuesday night to help defend a seat Democrats should have held. The special election in New York City may not be a harbinger of things to come, but it underlines the shakiness of the party’s present fortunes.
Updated, 1:10 AM