09.14.11

Wake Up, Washington!

The GOP's upset victory in Anthony Weiner's district wasn't a sign of party strength or a bellwether for 2012—it was a clear warning that every incumbent is fair game.

Republican Bob Turner won the special election to succeed Anthony Weiner last night, and conservatives are crowing that it signifies a tidal shift against President Obama.

It's true that this Queens-Brooklyn district, once represented by Geraldine Ferraro, hasn't voted for a GOP congressman in 80 years. But the same was true in western New York's 23rd District, which voted for Democrat Bill Owens after being in GOP hands since 1872 and the Buffalo district overlapping areas once held by Jack Kemp, which voted for Democrat Kathy Hochul in May's special election.

The common theme between the two is not a national partisan pendulum swing but anger at the political establishment—a vote against the status quo. It’s a wake-up call that both parties should take notice.

In the case of New York’s Ninth, it’s important to understand that this district is not a liberal enclave by NYC standards. It includes the neighborhood where the fictional Archie Bunker once lived—a misshapen district largely populated by what was once known in crude political science terms as “white ethnics,” carved out to allow for adjoining majority-minority districts represented by African-American and Hispanic congressmen. George W. Bush enjoyed the largest swing in the nation here in 2004, and Barack Obama lost the Brooklyn part of the district in 2008.

Turner, a retired cable executive who launched Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated TV show as well as The Jerry Springer Show (and who laudably adopted a young boy who was orphaned by AIDS), was aided by two macro-issues: concern that President Obama has been insufficiently pro-Israel and a quiet backlash against New York’s landmark marriage-equality bill funded by conservative activists.

The GOP’s fortunes started to rise with Turner’s endorsement by Ed Koch, a popular former Democratic mayor and self-described “liberal with sanity” who retains the ability to act as a bellwether in local elections. Koch announced that while he’d supported Obama in 2008, the president had subsequently “thrown Israel under the bus” by pushing for a Mideast peace plan based on 1967-borders.

The takeaway is that voters are angry at the status quo and looking to send a wake-up call to Washington.

This set up the interesting scenario of the Catholic Bob Turner accusing of his Democrat opponent, David Weprin—an observant Jew—of being insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.

Turner’s campaign also resuscitated the polarizing issue of the so-called Ground Zero mosque—known by its supporters by the anodyne name Park51—by running a controversial first ad that was slammed by firefighters.  Here’s the text: you judge for yourself: “It’s been 10 short years. Everyone remembers. Some, though, want to commemorate the tragedy by building a mosque on Ground Zero. President Obama thinks that’s a good idea. And so does congressional candidate David Weprin.”

Simultaneously, Dick Morris brought the fact that the mosque applied for federal 9/11 grants, a story I first broke on The Daily Beast almost a year ago, back to the foreground in conservative fundraising circles, a curiously well-timed coincidence.

A post-election statement from the Republican Jewish Coalition tried to expand the implications of the race nationally, saying: "This Republican win in an overwhelmingly Democrat district is a significant indicator of the problem that President Obama has in the Jewish community … Bob Turner's win tonight has huge implications for 2012 races in states with large Jewish communities, such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.”

Additionally, the anti-gay-marriage activist group the National Organization for Marriage announced that it spent $75,000 on mailings and calls in the special election. Weprin voted for the legislation earlier this year as a member of the state Assembly with the backing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the vast majority of the Democratic conference, aided by select Republican support in a vote of conscience. And while support for the legislation was nearly 60 percent in both upstate communities and suburbs, ironically its lowest levels of majority support came from urban communities that are traditionalist when it comes to social issues, especially gay marriage. These include not only outspoken Bronx-based state Sen. Ruben Diaz but also the orthodox communities that make up blocks of the Brooklyn portion of the district. Turner did not publically adopt this line of attack, presumably for fear of alienating as many swing voters as he attracted, but the bottom line is that New York’s Ninth District is a place where the culturally conservative side of identity politics can play.

To be sure, there were other factors in the Democrats’ face-plant—an uninspiring candidate who once ran for New York City comptroller but underestimated the national deficit by a mere $10 trillion at a recent Daily News editorial-board meeting. Additionally, of course, there were lingering bad feelings about Anthony Weiner’s disgraceful exit from public life. But blame-the-candidate is a Democratic parlor game played when they lose local seats they should have won by the numbers.

At the end of the day, this is a local election whose results will likely be short-lived—New York City is losing two congressional seats, and after Weiner’s exposure this was long expected to be axed in the redistricting. New York isn’t going to vote Republican in 2012, especially given the current crop of conservative candidates.

The takeaway is that voters are angry at the status quo and looking to send a wake-up call to Washington. Republicans can take comfort from the fact that they can make gains even in some Northeast urban enclaves. Democrats should remember that the problem with President Obama’s popularity isn’t that he is seen as too centrist—no matter what liberals say. And all incumbents should be uneasy.