In Howard Beach, Queens, last night, Bob Turner delivered a very short victory speech to celebrate the end of a very long conservative drought. In around five minutes, he marked the end of 88 years of Democratic dominance in New York’s 9th congressional district.
Soft-spoken but honest and direct, he first attributed his election to the dissatisfaction with President Obama’s “irresponsible fiscal policies” and his “treatment of Israel”: The latter elicited the loudest cheers of his speech. He reemphasized his vocation as a “citizen-candidate” and concluded, “I promised you I’d get to work; I’d better go do that.” That the Irish Catholic Republican stood surrounded by Jewish leaders and Democratic politicians emphasized the improbability of his success: He won by 54 to 46 percent, a miraculous upset in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than three to one.
Turner benefited from desperate dissatisfaction with the Obama administration in decidedly middle-class parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The electorate repeatedly emphasized concern about the state of the economy, high unemployment, and the threats to the survival of Medicare and Social Security. On all of these issues, Turner promised serious and conservative, but not revolutionary, solutions. His opponent, David Weprin, unsuccessfully tried to portray him as planning to cut entitlements for current seniors, sending multiple-page mailings to elderly voters on this theme. Turner maintained, in an impressively disciplined way for a relatively inexperienced politician, that he would preserve benefits for those 55 and older and deal with the actuarial realities without privatizing the programs. His victory in a district with an extremely high proportion of elderly voters indicates that Republicans can speak honestly and still win seniors over.
But the most significant factor in Turner’s win may have been his fervent Jewish support, across the spectrum from Orthodox groups to secular liberals. Former mayor Ed Koch explained last night that he first became interested in the election when he realized he could make it a referendum on Obama’s Israel policy, which has of course worried and offended American Jews. Weprin, an Orthodox Jew himself, promised equally faithful support of Israel, but voters were not swayed. The prospect of sending a powerful message to Obama animated many Jewish voters, with one young Turner campaign member describing to me the feeling that “there are times in your life when you have to take a stand on something,” and that now was the time to do so on Israel. John McLaughlin, the pollster for Turner’s campaign, notes that most of the undecided voters, who went heavily Republican in the final days, were Jewish, either Democrat or independent. Turner’s most unexpectedly strong showing came in areas with a strong Reform Jewish presence, such as Forest Hills. (It appears Turner’s Jewish supporters were not dissuaded by Weprin partisans’ making calls to voters on Election Day claiming to be from “Jews for Jesus, for Turner.”)
The Turner campaign’s success in garnering Jewish votes was, no doubt, aided by the conservative instincts of the Russian and Orthodox communities, many of whose members were angered by Weprin’s New York Assembly vote to legalize same-sex marriage (though Turner refused to make this a campaign issue). But Israel is still definitely the issue that allowed Turner to make such impressive incursions into Democratic Jewish territory, and this will resonate nationally. Some race watchers had speculated that the best case for Republicans would be that dissatisfaction with Obama’s Israel policy would keep Jews who would never vote Republican from turning out to vote. It appears Turner did better than that: His campaign spokesman Bill O’Reilly proudly cited splitting the vote with Weprin in secular-Jewish precincts in Queens — a result he says “should be really scaring Obama.”
At a press conference with Turner on Monday, former mayor Rudy Giuliani argued that a resounding Republican victory would see Obama calling a meeting on Wednesday morning to reexamine his Israel policy. Hyperbole, maybe, but it seemed that nearly every Jewish attendee at Turner events said he was a registered Democrat, and that’s a group Obama can ill afford to lose. Jews vote more faithfully than almost any other demographic, and donate very generously. McLaughlin noted that after African-Americans, Jewish voters are the most solidly Democratic group in the country, and “the Jewish vote is now up for grabs.” He explained this could be potentially very worrisome in Florida and Pennsylvania, toss-up states where Republicans tend to lose the edge by being blown out in Jewish districts. It is not a stretch to say that eroded or divided Jewish support could seriously harm Obama and the Democrats in 2012.
As for Bob Turner himself, he will bring principles and business savvy to Washington. But one House seat added to a Republican majority is not a game-changer, and the 9th district may well be eliminated in 2012. The real significance of his victory is an indication that even some of America’s most staunchly liberal corners have grown dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, and are willing to show it at the ballot box.
Nate Silver and others have noted that the 9th district is a particularly strange one, and thus its success does not automatically portend Republican success elsewhere. This may be true, but combined with last night’s congressional blowout in Nevada, Turner’s victory surely demonstrates the electoral potency of anger about President Obama and his policies.
Like Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, last night’s events evidenced how weak the Democratic political machine can be in the face of strong anti-incumbent sentiment embodied in an honest and appealing candidate. Turner was more of a lone-wolf candidate than Brown. Brown ran as a moderate Republican, but he received significant support from Tea Party groups. Turner actively refused their endorsements, funding, and support, and self-acknowledged Tea Partiers were not in evidence anywhere in the campaign, except in David Weprin’s well-rehearsed speeches. Instead, Turner assembled a unique, effective, and moderate coalition, representing all manner of ethnicities, religions, and political viewpoints.
Liberals, from members of the chattering classes like Thomas Friedman to machine Democrats like David Weprin, like to complain that the Republican party has become too rigidly right-wing, to the point of endangering America’s future. The pundits have been calling for a new consensus in American politics, a silent majority that would acknowledge our shared values and address our deepest problems. Last night, just such a majority elected Bob Turner.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley fellow.