Belle Harbor, N.Y. — “Bob Turner for Congress” yard signs dot the lawns of the quaint homes lining Rockaway Beach Boulevard. This augurs well for the upstart Republican on the verge of a major upset in this heavily Democratic district, and it represents an unsettling omen for national Democrats.
An ethnically mixed beach neighborhood in New York’s Ninth Congressional District — a district that includes portions of Brooklyn and Queens, and whose voters head to the polls today in a special election to replace disgraced Democratic representative Anthony Weiner — Belle Harbor is an unlikely stronghold for a Republican candidate battling State Assemblyman David Weprin, the Orthodox Jewish Democratic candidate. Yet sure enough, this Irish, Italian, and Jewish enclave, along with the rest of the district, may well wind up in GOP hands after today’s voting: The latest Siena poll of likely voters, released last Friday, puts Turner, a onetime TV executive, up by six points.
“Everyone here is voting for Turner,” I’m told by Vivian, a middle-aged Orthodox Jewish resident, and a lifelong Democrat. By “everyone,” Vivian explains, she means not only the Jewish community, which is alarmed by President Obama’s unfriendly approach to Israel, but her gentile neighbors as well in this traditionally Democratic terrain.
And here lies the rub for the embattled Weprin and for the White House, which has gone to bat for him: Over and above Israel-related issues, a loss in New York’s Ninth would spell deep electoral trouble on economic issues among so-called “ethnic whites,” which could cost President Obama and fellow Democrats dearly in 2012.
Most of the coverage thus far has focused on two issues: Israel, and Weprin’s campaign fumbles. And indeed, the Jewish state has played a significant role in the campaign, with Jewish voters in the district deeply concerned by Obama’s insistence that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must begin on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, which are widely considered indefensible, and by the president’s frosty relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Turner adopted a strong stance on Israel, defying Weprin to break with the White House on the issue. And, indeed, in the first of several miscues, Weprin haltingly criticized Obama, first suggesting that he wouldn’t endorse him for reelection, then walking back the suggestion. Several dissatisfied Jewish New York Democrats have broken with their party’s standard-bearer in the Ninth. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch announced his support for Turner, as did State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jewish Democratic coNlleague of Weprin’s.
Sniffing potential victory, the Republican Jewish Coalition joined the fray, mailing flyers to 30,000 Jewish residents in the district. One of its flyers highlighted Koch’s July comment in the New York Post that “if Jewish New Yorkers and others who support Israel were to turn away from the Democratic Party and elect the Republican to Congress in 2011, it might very well cause President Obama to change his hostile position on the State of Israel and to re-establish the special relationship presidents before him had supported.”
Weprin further hurt himself with a controversial television ad. Designed to highlight Turner’s supposed opposition to closing tax loopholes for corporate jets, the ad clumsily depicted an airplane flying low over New York City’s skyline. Needless to say, the ad didn’t go over well when it was aired two days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, especially here in Belle Harbor, which lost around a hundred residents in the towers. (The synagogue I visited on Saturday marked the occasion by commemorating the loss of a member who worked in the World Trade Center, with the sermon given by another member who was supposed to have been there that day.) The TV spot was, apparently, simply a thoughtless mistake, but nonetheless a costly one. In an explosion of Yiddish-inflected outrage at the ad, the popular Hikind fumed: “What are they? Crazy? Are they out of their freaking minds? Is this sick? This is a disgrace. This is chutzpah.”
Jewish residents here also expressed irritation at the relentless Weprin phone calls and door knocks that persisted into the Sabbath (because most of these are Democratic households, Turner’s own get-out-the-vote effort was far less intrusive).