New York special election is a smelling salt for Obama, Democrats

New York special election: In a House district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, the victory of GOP businessman Bob Turner delivers a sobering message to the Democratic Party leadership.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Bob Turner (c.), joined by his wife Peggy and family, smiles as he delivers his victory speech during a New York special election night party, Wednesday, Sept. 14. Turner says his shocking win in a heavily Democratic New York City district is a 'loud and clear' message to Washington.

For the first time since 1923 – when Warren Harding was president – a Republican will represent New York's Ninth Congressional District, which stretches from Queens into Brooklyn.

In a district that is heavily Democratic, Republican retired businessman Bob Turner defeated Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin in a special election to fill the seat of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D), who resigned in June after he admitted sending racy photos and messages to various women.

Mr. Turner said his victory – by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent – sends a message to President Obama. “This is a historic race,” said Turner in his victory speech. “I’ve been asked by the people of this district to send a message to Washington, and I hope they hear it loud and clear. I’m the messenger.”

It was a theme that dominated his campaign and one with which some outside political analysts agree.

They say the Turner victory, in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, should send a sobering message to the Democratic Party leadership.

“This should have been a walk in the park for the Democrats, even considering the circumstances,” says Costas Pangopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York. “Make no mistake about it, Barack Obama was on this ballot yesterday and he clearly lost.”

In Washington, Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio echoed that sentiment. In a statement, he said New Yorkers have “delivered a strong warning to the Democrats who control the levers of power in our federal government.”

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch said the election sent a specific message to Mr. Obama over his Israel policies. In May, Obama suggested that Israel’s borders should be returned to pre-1967 outlines and that Israel should impose a freeze on new settlements in the West Bank. Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus,” says Mr. Koch.

“I think the message is don’t take the Jewish constituency for granted – and this district has the largest Jewish constituency in the nation,” said Koch in an interview on Tuesday.

In an indication of how important he considered the Jewish vote, Turner traveled through parts of Brooklyn Tuesday with Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew and a Democrat who endorsed him a week before the election. The district is about 30 percent Jewish, including many Russian Orthodox Jews, who often have more conservative views.

Mr. Hikind, in announcing his endorsement, echoed Koch, saying Turner’s election would send a message to Obama “about his failed, disastrous economic policies and his reckless policies toward Israel.”

The Turner win came despite a frantic last-minute effort by the Democratic machine in Queens and Brooklyn to get out the vote.

In Forest Hills on Tuesday afternoon, union members, some wearing T-shirts identifying their union, greeted residents as they came out of the subway stations with exhortations to vote for Mr. Weprin. A car with a bullhorn mounted on the trunk blared a pro-Weprin message.

However, a woman who would identify herself only as “Vivian” said she planned to vote for Turner. “I like his proposals,” she said, “And I think I’m feeling in more of a Republican mode these days.”

Another voter, Lynn Berzon, a retiree, said she was considering a vote for Turner because she liked his pro-business attitude. She was also tired of robo-calls from the Democrats exhorting her to vote for Weprin. The Democrats had tape-recorded calls from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former President Bill Clinton.

“I must have gotten 100 phone calls, it did not stop ringing,” she said as she walked along Queens Boulevard. “But my first priority is who is going to do something for me.”

In an indication that Turner may not support the most conservative fiscal proposals of fellow House Republicans, Koch said Turner had assured him that he would go along with efforts to privatize Social Security or Medicare. “He told me, ‘I am for stabilizing the programs and making them solvent in the future,’ ” said Koch. “I said, ‘Put it in writing,’ and he did.”

Turner is expected to support some of the more conservative measures in Congress such as the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but is now being challenged in federal court.

Those conservative positions appealed to James Jagiello, who voted for Turner. “Obama has been the most pro-abortion president,” said Mr. Jagiello as he walked along the street in Forest Hills. “And Weprin has supported the same-sex marriage act,” he said.

It’s not clear how long Turner will represent the district; many observers suggest it will be eliminated when Albany starts the contentious redistricting process. The state lost two seats as a result of the latest US Census.

Koch says that does not mean Turner will just fade away. “No question that district will be redistricted,” says Koch. “But he can run again in the new district,” says the former mayor. “That’s what they [Democrats] are all scared of.”

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