Republican Bob Turner, in a political nail-biter, snagged a House seat tonight in New York’s Ninth District, which straddles Brooklyn and Queens. The Big Apple special election, of course, was called after Anthony Weiner resigned. Turner’s victory gives the GOP two seats in New York City boroughs, following Michael Grimm’s win last year on Staten Island. Democrats, to no one’s surprise, are already shushing Republicans for calling the race a referendum on President Obama. They’re right — to a point. Voters in the district, where Democratic registration outnumbers Republican three-to-one — have indeed soured on Obama. But the election was shaped by a variety of factors, local and national, not just the president’s unpopularity. Here are five lessons learned.
Candidates matter. Since 2009, New York has endured a flurry of special House elections. And from Dede Scozzafava to Jane Corwin, Republicans have struggled to field strong contenders. Bob Turner, at first blush, seemed to be more of the same — a 70-year-old grandfather and businessman with tea-party ties. Democrats, for their part, nominated a well-known state assemblyman, David Weprin. Yet it was Turner, a former television executive, who excelled on the trail. Credit his success to his experience: He ran as a sacrificial lamb against Weiner last cycle, and it wasn’t for naught — he garnered 40 percent of the vote and built his name recognition, which made him a sharp, well-known candidate for this compressed campaign. Weprin, on other hand, stumbled under the spotlight. He was unimpressive in editorial interviews and flat on the stump. In these blue-collar New York neighborhoods, intangibles carry weight.
National security matters. In early 2010, Scott Brown launched an improbable bid for the Senate seat vacated by Ted Kennedy. The Bay State Republican railed against Obamacare, to be sure, but he also made a strong national-security case. In a sense, it’s a backdoor way to victory in blue states, where Republicans, if they lead with conservative policy ideas, face frowns. In NY-9, Bob Turner did the same, riding the anti-Obama wave, but placing a major emphasis on national security. The bet paid off: Turner was able to cobble together a coalition of Republicans, independents, and, most important, Democrats frustrated with Obama’s foreign-policy positions. Ed Koch, a Democrat and former New York mayor, endorsed Turner, mostly due to his dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Rudy Giuliani also signed on. In a district with a strong Orthodox Jewish community, Turner, a Catholic, found a way to beat one of the bloc’s better-known political figures — he underscored his commitment to Israel and tied Weprin to a president seen by many Jews as unpredictable, to say the least.
Marriage matters. Democrats may think the debate is over, but in a district they’ve held for decades, it is a hot-button issue, and may have cost David Weprin a seat in Congress. Orthodox Jewish leaders hold major sway in Brooklyn and Queens and many of them campaigned against Weprin for supporting same-sex marriage, which was legalized by the state legislature in June. Queens assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat, endorsed Turner due to Weprin’s vote. Sensing opportunity, the National Organization for Marriage poured thousands into the district. And the polls encouraged them: One Public Policy Polling survey showed district voters opposing same-sex marriage, 45 percent to 41 percent. PPP’s numbers also showed that nearly 30 percent of locals viewed marriage as a deciding factor. In an interview with an Orthodox Jewish news outlet, Weprin, on the ropes, fumbled, awkwardly tiptoeing away from the law. He may have convinced a scattering of conservative Democrats to stick with him, but he let down his base, generating ire from his Democratic colleagues for questioning, of all things, the procedure used to pass the bill. “I find this offensive,” complained one Democratic state senator. “Once people think you’re not being honest about your position, then they question all of your positions.” Turner, who spent months reaching out to rabbis and their flocks, cleaned up.
Obama remains a liability for Democrats. There will be much debate in coming days about the extent to which the president was a factor in NY-9, but the poll numbers and final results should signal trouble for the White House. As Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) noted in conversation with reporters this week, the race was “closer than we would have liked or hoped.” Weprin didn’t even get a jobs-speech bump. Obama won 55 percent of the vote here three years ago, but these days, due to the sagging economy and his disconnect with conservative Jews, he is losing ground not only in swing regions, but in such longtime Democratic strongholds as NY-9. The number has flipped: A McLaughlin poll released earlier this month shows Obama’s disapproval at 55 percent. Democrats can’t say they didn’t try: In the final days, they poured a half-million dollars into the district and Bill Clinton attempted to rouse liberals to the polls. It wasn’t enough, and Weprin, more than anyone, didn’t want the president’s help. Weprin’s (and Democrats’) uneasiness with Obama was captured in one infamous interview, in which he said, with utter seriousness, that he “will probably not refuse to endorse him.” That kind of comment, from an elected big-city Dem, must make David Plouffe squirm.
Republicans should not ignore New York. For many New York conservatives, Jim Buckley’s 1970 Senate victory was a high point — the last high point. They should stop being so nostalgic. Turner’s victory is far from an Empire State anomaly. It’s one of a slew of districts that has trended right in recent years. Sure, the state GOP, when it comes to special-election circuses, has often misfired. But beyond their frequent mismanagement and low cash flow, Republicans are actually winning seats, building a strong base for 2012. Turner is part of that story, as are Grimm, Nan Hayworth, Chris Gibson, Ann Marie Buerkle, Tom Reed, and Richard Hanna — all Republicans who won House seats last year across the state, from the Southern Tier to the North Shore. GOP leaders, in both Washington and Albany, should pay attention.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.