HOWARD BEACH, N.Y. – The mood among Democrats as they saw this Brooklyn-Queens Congressional district fall to the Republicans for the first time since 1920 ranged from shock to anger. Benjy Sarlin, a reporter for the liberal TalkingPointsMemo website, captured it best when he reported that New York City Council member Mark Weprin, the brother of Democratic Congressional candidate David Weprin, couldn’t get over the fact the massive union turnout machine he’d deployed had failed and that Republican Bob Turner, a 70-year-old political neophyte, had won 54 percent to 46 percent.
“We had 1500 workers going to the polls,” he told Sarlin. “What the hell is wrong with us?”
Independent polls taken just before Tuesday’s vote tell the tale. The issues defeated the Democrats. True, Weprin was a hapless candidate, so gaffe-prone that the liberal New York Daily News pictured him as Inspector Closeau in a cartoon. But even Democrats privately admitted that Weprin would have won if President Obama’s approval numbers had even cleared 40 percent in the district.
Obama’s approval rating stood at 31 percent over the weekend in the survey taken by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Jobs were an important issue, with voters eager to express dissatisfaction with high unemployment and the failure of stimulus programs. Significantly, the PPP poll showed Republican Turner with a six-point lead late last week. He wound up winning by eight points AFTER President Obama’s much bally-hooed “jobs” speech last Thursday. Whatever Obama was selling in that speech, normally Democratic voters in Brooklyn and Queens weren’t buying.
Anger among Jews over Obama’s policies on Israel also played a role in what is probably the most Jewish Congressional district in the country. The PPP poll found 37 percent of the district’s voters thought Israel was “very important” as an issue, and they were going overwhelmingly for Turner, despite the fact that Weprin was an Orthodox Jew and Turner a Catholic. “Obama threw Israel under a bus,” declared Ed Koch, a former Democratic mayor of New York who crossed party lines to endorse Turner and send a message to the Obama White House. “This result will have a real impact on both Jewish voters and donors as they figure out who to support in 2012,” says Jeff Ballabon, a media executive who is helping organize Jewish support for Governor Rick Perry of Texas.
Same-sex marriage may also have played a role in the race. Weprin had cast a controversial vote in favor of gay marriage earlier this year despite expressing concerns about procedural flaws in how the vote was rammed through. The PPP poll showed voters in the 9th Congressional district opposed gay marriage by 44 percent to 41 percent, with especially intense opposition among both Orthodox Jews and observant Catholics. The National Organization for Marriage, a group backing traditional values, poured $75,000 into the district emphasizing the issue. Other groups, including the Independent Women’s Forum, weighed in touting their own agendas.
Such efforts were desperately needed by the Turner campaign, which was vastly outspent by huge inflows of cash from the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee which bought $600,000 in last-minute TV time in a desperate bid to save the seat. By contrast, the Republican National Campaign Committee made only a token effort until the very end.
But what the Turner campaign lacked in cash it made up in enthusiastic volunteers. Roger Aguinaldo, a Filipino-American financial executive, reported that his neighborhood in Queens was festooned with Turner signs and filled with people going door-to-door for the Republican.
On the same night that Democrats lost the New York seat, they suffered an accompanying black eye in a special election for a Nevada Congressional seat centered around Reno. Republican Mike Amodei won the race over a well-funded Democrat by 22 points in a district that John McCain had only tied Barack Obama in less than three years ago.
Democrats need to pay attention to these twin body blows. Some worry that their president is in danger of becoming Carterized – a political condition last seen in 1980 when an incumbent president became impotent, powerless to control the forces around him and a drag on his party’s entire ticket. Some Democrats are already wishing that President Obama – who was often said he would be willing to be a one-term president if it meant he would accomplish more of his goals – would take up that thought and announce he would retire the way Lyndon Johnson did in 1968.
As for Turner, he told me his first goal is to get some needed sleep and then go to Washington to be sworn in. He is confident his victory will resonate nationwide. “I am the messenger,” he told his cheering supporters last night. “This message will into 2012. We only hope our voices are heard (and) we can start putting things right again."
In a sense, Turner’s victory represents the worst possible nightmare for Democrats. All of their ads attacking Turner as someone who would ravage Social Security and Medicare fell flat. Worse, his his victory comes at an awkward time by stripping away whatever gloss Obama had created around his jobs speech to Congress. Not only did it come in the most true blue of Democratic territories. But Turner himself is linked to most of the bogeymen Democrats and liberals loathe most. The former head of Multimedia Television, he was the man who approached Rush Limbaugh and convinced him to start a successful TV show in 1992. The executive producer of that program happened to be one Roger Ailes, who in 1996 went on to found the Fox News Channel, the bête noire of all liberals. To add insult to injury, the name of Turner’s press secretary is none other than Bill O’Reilly (no relation to the Fox News host).
“I can only imagine the crazy conspiracy theories they’ll come up with,” Kevin Turner, the candidate’s brother, told me last night at the victory celebration.
Indeed, rather than spin excuses or fantasies about why they lost liberals would be better served by contemplating just how badly they could have read their 2008 mandate and figure out how they can convince President Obama to modify his course to prevent a Democratic disaster not seen since Jimmy Carter cost his party the White House and Senate just over 30 years ago.
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