New York’s Special Election: Looming Upset Would Be a Rebuke to Obama

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Back in May, Democrats pulled off an upset in a special election in Western New York, snatching a House seat in a Republican stronghold. On Tuesday the GOP appears ready to exact its revenge.

Republican Bob Turner, a retired television executive, holds an edge over Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin in the special election to replace Anthony Weiner in New York’s Ninth Congressional District, according to recent polls. The district has been in Democratic hands since 1923. But surveys conducted by Siena College and the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling show Turner, 70, on the verge of snapping that string.

Though often invoked as a bellwether of broad national trends, special elections are generally idiosyncratic affairs shaped by a battery of local factors. But there’s some symmetry between the win Democrats notched in New York’s 26th district last spring and the one Republicans are gunning for Tuesday. In NY-26, Democrat Kathy Hochul captured a seat vacated by Republican Chris Lee, who resigned after a disastrous foray into Craigslist’s personals section. Turner is vying to replace Weiner, a Democrat who succumbed a sordid Internet scandal of his own.

In neither case, however, was the scandal-scarred incumbent the primary bogeyman. Hochul capitalized on fears over Paul Ryan’s unpopular budget blueprint, which would have voucherized Medicare. By contrast, Turner has benefited from President Obama’s slide in a district in which he coasted in 2008. “If Turner wins on Tuesday it will be largely due to the incredible unpopularity of Barack Obama dragging his party down in the district. Obama won 55% there in 2008, but now has a staggeringly bad 31% approval rating, with 56% of voters disapproving of him,” writes PPP’s Tom Jensen.

It’s more than just angst about Obama’s handling of the economy. New York’s Ninth District, which encompasses a pistol-shaped swath of Brookyln and Queens, is heavily ethnic, with large pockets of Orthodox Jews. U.S. policy toward Israel is a signal issue for many voters; 37% of respondents in Siena’s poll described it as “very important.” And Turner, a Catholic, is steamrolling Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, in the battle for the Jewish vote by harnessing fears – which even some high-profile Israelis say are misguided – about Obama’s purported lack of support for Israel. Weprin’s also been hurt in the Orthodox community by his support for New York’s new same-sex marriage law.

Cruising comfortably just last month, Weprin, 55, has frittered away his advantage with a string of glaring gaffes. A former chair of the New York City Council’s Finance Committee, he flashed a tenuous grasp of the nation’s fiscal woes, undershooting the size of the federal debt by $10 trillion. He backed out of a debate, citing a storm that had already bypassed the city, and waffled when asked whether he would endorse Obama. In a bid to highlight Turner’s “smoke and mirrors” economic policy (Turner says he wants to reduce spending by up to one-third without cutting social safety-net benefits), Weprin gave him a mock endorsement from a fictional sorceress named “Wendy Wizard.” The gimmick only conjured confusion.

“Weprin is a weak candidate,” says Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at New York City’s Baruch College. “He came into this unprepared. He didn’t know his facts. And he’s not just dull; he’s anti-charismatic. When he comes into contact with charisma, they’re mutually annihilated.”

So how did Weprin managed to snag the Democratic nomination? It helps that he’s vying for a job few people wanted. New York will lose two of its 29 congressional seats in redistricting, and even before Weiner’s ignominious departure, the Ninth District was a candidate for the chopping block. Despite Democrats’ three-to-one edge in voter registration, the seat is growing redder. Al Gore won 67% of the presidential vote in 2000, but John Kerry nabbed just 56% four year later, and Obama followed with 55%–one of the sharpest swings in the country during the past decade. Muzzio says Weprin, with the support of local Democratic leaders like Queens-based Representative Joe Crowley, volunteered to be a sacrificial lamb, running for the seat with the tacit understanding that he wouldn’t challenge fellow Democrats when the district was sliced up.

Turner, whose TV credits include the “Jerry Springer Show,” hasn’t exactly distinguished himself either. He made headlines for questioning a bill that provides health care benefits for 9/11 first responders. Asked to cite a wasteful tax loophole at a recent debate, he paused before responding, “As a Republican, I never met a loophole I didn’t like.” To sow doubts about Weprin, he fanned the embers still hot from last year’s brouhaha over the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero. One of his ads opens with smoke billowing from the Twin Towers before repeating the canard that Weprin wants to “commemorate the tragedy by building a mosque on Ground Zero.”

As the race tightened in recent weeks, it’s begun to draw national attention. Democrats have mobilized behind Weprin. Senator Chuck Schumer — who formerly represented the district — campaigned on his behalf, while Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo recorded robo-calls. Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC purchased pricey airtime on his behalf. The DCCC’s’ ad, however, was memorable for the wrong reasons; it featured a jet emblazoned with Turner’s name flying over the New York skyline, an image some viewed as tone-deaf around the time of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. (The DCCC quickly edited the skyline out of the spot.) They’re now pinning their hopes on a frantic get-out-the-vote effort.

Republicans have taken what one GOP operative characterizes as a “behind-the-scenes” approach to the race. Still, the party’s national arms have helped funnel tens of thousands of dollars to Turner. Pete Sessions, the chairman of the NRCC, issued a fundraising cry to “Send Obama a Message,” and though Turner still trails Weprin in fund-raising, he’s received at least $5,000 apiece from House Republican leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy.

“I’m cautious to take any big lessons out of a special elections,” says the Republican operative, who argues faltering support for Obama among Jews in New York’s Ninth District doesn’t augur well for the president’s prospects in South Florida. When Hochul captured the special election in Buffalo last May, Democrats thought Ryan’s plan would be a silver bullet capable of inflicting fatal damage to Republican hopes to hold the House in 2012. Turner partly neutralized that weapon by disavowing his past support for the plan. Democrats never found another bludgeon, and frustration with the President gave Republicans a powerful one of their own. “If Weprin loses,” says Muzzio, “it really does become a referendum on Obama.” That may be a wake-up call. The national referendum on Obama is just over a year away.