It was a crushing defeat for Democrats in a district that has three times as many registered Democrats as registered Republicans, and which has been in Democratic hands since 1923. But will David Weprin’s loss to Bob Turner in the special election to replace Anthony Weiner reverberate nationwide? And is it a referendum on President Obama or just a local case of low turnout and a weak candidate?
The answer often seems to depend upon which side of the political aisle you are on — although some Democrats are more willing to express concern for President Obama’s chances in 2012 and see the special election as a grim warning sign, as do many Republicans.
Throughout the short campaign, Bob Turner and his supporters pounded the message that if he was victorious in the district, it would undoubtedly send a national message on economic and foreign policy issues.
However, some specific details suggest national Democrats shouldn’t worry too much about the loss: low turnout in some parts of the district, a weak gaffe-filled candidate who didn’t even live in the district, the district trending more conservative, and the fact that special congressional elections traditionally haven’t been national bellwethers in the House (this doesn’t take into account Republican Scott Brown’s surprising election to the Senate in Massachusetts the January before huge GOP wins in both houses of Congress).
In 2006, Republicans won special elections across the country but lost the House, while in 2010 Democrats won special elections and lost the House, something the Democratic Congressional Committee pointed out in its memo about the loss.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who held the seat for 18 years, said Wednesday in a conference call held by the Democratic National Committee that the election was “unusual” and “unique,” but it was not a referendum, pointing out the district is “among the most conservative” in New York City.
“The bottom line is it’s not a bellwether district,” Schumer said. “Anybody that tries to extrapolate between what’s happened in this district and what would happen in New York City, New York state or the country is making a big mistake.”
However, Democrats poured in money to hold the seat, outspending Republicans by a large margin. The DCCC spent $500,000, mostly for television ads, while outside groups on both sides poured money into the race.
There also are other signs to suggest the vote could have national significance.
For instance, despite Weprin being an Orthodox Jew who has visited Israel eight times, Turner and his supporters were able to make Israel a focal point of the election and told supporters to cast a vote for the retired media executive to send a message to Obama about his Israel stance. Voters angry over the president’s call to return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders was a major issue in the election and could impact other areas with large Jewish populations, including the battleground states of South Florida and Pennsylvania.
There’s also the issue of whether former Jewish donors to the president who may be upset at his Israel stance may take their money to the GOP or just sit this election out.
In the same conference call, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., who represents a South Florida district with a large Jewish population, swatted away any of those concerns, saying she’s “confident” Obama will “receive the majority of the Jewish vote.”
“The Democrats have consistently received the Jewish vote and will again,” Wasserman-Schultz said. “Because of his [Obama's] record on Israel and because of his strong record on domestic issues important to the Jewish community, he and Democrats up and down the ballot will receive an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote once again.”
Longtime New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said the White House should be concerned by the loss in New York’s 9th congressional district and they should see it as a “warning” that the loss is part of “the reconfiguration of an electorate that the president needs to be re-elected and the Democrats need to hold on to.”
Sheinkopf added that Israel was a focal point of the race and so was sending a message to the president on the economy, but that Democrats also should be concerned with Catholic voters in the district who voted for Turner.
“If you can’t win Catholics for a Democrat when the president becomes the issue, and he did in the bluest of blue states, what do people think is going to happen unless the Democrats change their tune in 2012 in Ohio, Michigan and Missouri?” Sheinkopf asked. “There is something else going on here and it’s not about spin. It’s about the fact people are concerned about the economy and they don’t like the way the president is handling it.”
Sheinkopf said Democrats shouldn’t depend “on the young people and the people who voted for Barack Obama [in 2008] coming out with the same intensity” in 2012.
“The Democrats need to come up with better issues on the economy, particularly in states where you have heavy Catholic populations in the Midwest, and they need to do it quickly,” Sheinkopf said. “You have to go back to reality, which is it is going to be the people who are economically impacted – they are probably going to turn out.”
The New York results likely will inform the Democrats’ strategy, whether or not they believe or admit the defeat was a bellwether. But a source close to the Weprin campaign said while the issue of Obama was “certainly out there” because of Turner’s ability to push the issue, to the Weprin campaign voters seemed more concerned with issues surrounding the economy and holding on to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.
Of course, Turner and his campaign didn’t see it that way. Tuesday evening at his victory party in New York’s Howard Beach neighborhood, Turner thanked the crowd and said “the message will resound for a full year. It will resound into 2012.”
“We are unhappy, I am telling you. I am the messenger,” Turner said. “Heed us. … We’ve lit one candle today and there’s going to be a bonfire pretty soon.”
On Air Force One Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney tried to downplay the loss and said special elections are “unique,” and they don’t forecast regular elections well.
“Are Americans in general not happy with Washington?” Carney asked. “The answer is yes.”
He added that members of Congress from both parties that are up for election in 2012 need to focus on job creation.
After the Republicans lost a special election in a heavily Republican district in May, National Republican Committee Chairman Peter Sessions said such elections are “poor indicators of broader trends or future general election outcomes.”
Today on ABC News’ Topline, when Sessions was asked why this special election was about, as he put it, the “Democrats’ agenda, the president’s popularity and his policies,” Sessions said his earlier statement on special elections was still correct, but with a caveat.
“That’s correct — unless the president of the United States is involved and you put your entire playbook behind these two races that have gone on,” Sessions said. “They came after us on Medicare. They came after us on the president’s agenda. When you have the fourth-largest Jewish district at N.Y.-9 … That is a national implication.”
It seems Republicans will continue to herald the victory as a bellwether and warning to the White House while Democrats will try to downplay the loss. But all of the issues involved in the race — jobs, entitlement preservation, and Middle East policy — likely will continue to be pounded on the campaign trail from both sides of the aisle until November 2012.