QUEENS, NY — In an upset victory, it appears that Republican Bob Turner has defeated Dave Weprin in the special election to replace Anthony Weiner, who resigned amid the public firestorm that followed his sending a lewd picture to a college student over Twitter.
The Assocated Press and NY1 called the race for Turner with the majority of precincts in NY-09 counted and Weprin trailing 53-47. At a results party, Weprin refused to concede, promising supporters a “long night” until absentee and paper ballots came in. Democrats had hoped their union-backed GOTV efforts would push them over the edge, but the numbers were grim from the start as they came in.
“We had 1500 workers going to the polls,” City Council member Mark Weprin, David’s younger brother, said looking over my shoulder at the results. “What the hell is wrong with us?”
Democrats enjoy a 3:1 registration advantage over Republicans in the district, but it’s relatively conservative by New York standards in national contests to make it upset territory, going for President Obama with only 55% of the vote in 2008 with similar numbers for John Kerry in 2004. Nonetheless, Democrats were clearly the favorite heading into the contests. Weprin sank in the polls as he confronted a perfect storm of factors working against him, including the weak economy, Obama’s unpopularity in the district, resentment of the local Democratic machine, and a number of serious self-inflicted gaffes.
Turner put Weprin on the ropes with a focused campaign message that positioned the race as a pure referendum on President Obama, who has grown very unpopular in the district. With the prominent backing of former New York mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, he devoted particular attention to Israel, where he told Jewish voters upset with Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that they could send a message to the White House with an upset Republican victory. The district is about one-third Jewish, many of whom are ultra-Orthodox. On Tuesday, Turner’s campaign decorated his headquarters with an American and Israeli flag, taking care to put each at equal height.
In addition to the Israel issue — but related — Turner ran ads attacking Weprin for supporting the right of the sponsors of the Park 51 community center to locate their project in Lower Manhattan. Once again, even though Weprin had not come out decisively in favor of the plan, merely acknowledging its right to be built, Turner was able to pin him to Obama’s less popular position.
But many also blamed Weprin for running a weak campaign. He made a series of stumbles throughout the race, losing the New York Daily News’ important endorsement to Turner in part because he was unable to answer their editors’ question on the size of the national debt. Weprin guessed $4 trillion, about $10 trillion off from the actual number. A number of Weprin voters told TPM on election day that even though they were voting for him, they thought he was an unimpressive politician compared to Weiner.
“In spite of everything, he knew what he was doing,” Deanna Condino, 66, sighed, adding that she didn’t think Weprin was a “great candidate.”
Some Democratic strategists complained to TPM that the Queens Democratic Party had picked an intentionally weak candidate out of expectations that the seat would be taken out in redistricting and was only a one year rental. A spokesman for conservative Super PAC American Crossroads offered a similar reason on the Republican side for holding back their resources and letting Turner largely fight his own battles.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D) volunteered that the redistricting issue made things more complicated, although she said she had always expected the race to be close.
“You’re voting for a Congressman who’s only going to be in Congress for a year, so that’s unique,” she said.
There’s no question that Obama’s general unpopularity and the weak economy contributed heavily to the loss as well and it’s hard to label any one issue the decisive blow.
So what does it mean for Democrats? Republicans are swooping in to claim it as a rejoinder to the NY-26 special election, in which Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) scored a surprise victory in a GOP-leaning seat, saying it proves that Obama’s unpopularity threatens Democrats throughout the country.
“New Yorkers put Washington Democrats on notice that voters are losing confidence in a President whose policies assault job-creators and affront Israel,” NRCC chair Pete Sessions said in a statement. “An unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide in a 2012 election that is a referendum on his economic policies.
The district’s unique ethnic makeup — heavily Jewish (especially Orthodox), heavily Irish and Italian, and heavily Asian and Hispanic — and strong local character makes it difficult to declare it representative of the nation of large. Special elections are also notoriously unreliable markers outside their district in general — Democrats’ surprise win in conservative PA-12 in May 2010 came right before a Republican wave broke in November, for example. Nonetheless, it’s highly unlikely Turner would have been able to prevail were Obama not at a low point in his national polling.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.