The last time New York’s Ninth Congressional District sent a Republican to Congress, Warren G. Harding was president and wide swaths of Queens were still cornfields. Thanks to Anthony Weiner’s digital indiscretions, Bob Turner has a chance to break that streak.
A new poll indicates that the race is at the moment dead even between Turner and Democrat David Weprin. Turner mounted a credible campaign against Weiner in 2010, winning 41 percent of the vote. His race this time around should give an indication of how far frustration with the economy and President Obama can take Republicans, albeit in one of the most Democratic corners of the country.
Turner has emphasized two issues throughout his campaign: the debt and Israel. While his opponent failed to give the New York Daily News a reasonably close approximation of the amount of the federal debt when asked, Turner has repeatedly pointed out that if entitlements and runaway spending are not addressed, “we will saddle the next generation with a debt-service problem that is insurmountable.” His ideas on spending, taxes, and entitlements are realistic, both fiscally and politically, acknowledging the extent of the pending crisis but stopping well short of the more extensive changes contemplated by Paul Ryan and other hardcore deficit warriors.
Both Weprin and Turner are hawkish supporters of Israel, a perfectly orthodox stance in the Ninth. But Turner, seeking an edge on the issue, argued during an interview with National Review Online that his opponent’s opposition to Obama’s antagonistic Israel policies “would be undercut by party loyalty.” Robert Hornak, a spokesman for the Queens Republican party, notes that the election is “a referendum on Obama’s leadership, and in this district, especially as it pertains to Israel.” Unfortunately for Turner, the district’s Jewish community is so unwilling to vote Republican that the best he can hope for is that Weprin’s weakness on Israel might depress turnout.
Turner has emphasized his career as a businessman and his lifelong residency in Queens, characterizing Weprin as a political opportunist and pointing out that he does not even reside in the district. Whether those local ties will be enough to overcome party affiliation is the crucial question for Turner.
“Ironically, the fact that the Republicans have been putting nothing into this race has been good for Turner,” says Fred Siegel, an expert on New York City politics and scholar at the Manhattan Institute.
Weprin, on the other hand, will be playing party loyalty to the hilt. He has repeatedly tried to link Turner with the Tea Party movement, with which he is not affiliated, and with Paul Ryan’s entitlement-reform agenda, which he does not support. Weprin has specifically charged that Turner plans to cut or privatize Social Security and Medicare, a serious charge in a district with a huge share of older voters. Turner has consistently emphasized that he will not vote to change benefits for citizens now over the age of 55 and does not support Paul Ryan’s plan, which, he says, “privatizes Medicare.” Turner has gone so far as to decline proffered support from tea-party organizations.
Anger and anti-incumbent sentiment have made this race competitive in a district where it otherwise would not be, but Turner presents himself as the anti-anger candidate, soft-spoken and non-ideological. But that quiet tone has not always been apparent at the debates between the two, when the audience’s shouting and cross-talk was sometimes reminiscent of the Jerry Springer Show, which Turner produced as CEO of Multimedia Entertainment. In one sense, Turner can afford to speak softly: The election promises to be dominated by dissatisfaction with President Obama and with his handling of the economy in particular — which has left voters in the district so fired up that Turner hardly needs to stoke their anger.
No Republican has represented this slice of Queens and Brooklyn since 1923, but the district is changing. In the last decade, a political scene once dominated by a liberal Jewish population has seen an influx of more conservative Orthodox Jewish groups along with Eastern European and Russian immigrants whose anti-Communist background tilts them conservative. This has contributed to a long-term trend away from uniform liberalism. Brooklyn GOP chairman Craig Eaton argues that the district, especially its Brooklyn section, has been “trending Republican in the last four to five years” and that “the conservative base is growing.”
But events on the ground may prove more important than that long-term trend — Weprin famously fumbled a question about the national debt and then pulled out of a scheduled debate in Queens. More embarrassing, he has recently been caught spying on the Turner campaign.
Turner still has a steep hill to climb. As Fred Siegel explains, “under Bloomberg, the city has become de-politicized, and what we’re left with is people for whom this is a business.” Weprin is one of those just-business candidates, and he’ll have public-sector unions and the Democratic machine behind him. They may be a bit weaker in the Ninth than in much of the rest of the city, but they are still a powerful force, and Weprin garners a new union endorsement seemingly every day. The febrile environment should inspire a strong turnout, and much of that will be driven by the Democratic apparatus. Republican sentiment at the moment is realistic but hopeful, and increasingly optimistic after Weprin’s gaffes and good news from the polls.
Turner hopes to be this year’s Scott Brown, with one important difference: Brown’s victory as a tactical coup for Republicans working to put together 60 Senate votes to block Obamacare. Even if he wins, Turner will be elected to serve 16 months representing a district that probably will be eliminated by redistricting in 2012. It would be a largely symbolic victory — but one that would put Obama and Democrats on notice that voters have had enough economic stagnation and are ready to reject the policies that have deepened it for all Americans — including those who live in traditionally Democratic districts.
—Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley fellow.