New blow dealt to Obama as Republicans win key seat

By Huw Silk

The Democratic Party in the United States hardly needs reminding of the rough ride it suffered on election night last November. Although President Obama’s party retained control of the Senate, it lost 63 seats – and its majority – in the House of Representatives to the Republicans, earning John Boehner the speaker’s chair at the expense of Nancy Pelosi.

One seat the Democrats did comfortably retain control of, however, was New York’s 9th Congressional District. Comprising parts of New York City’s districts of Brooklyn and Queens, this appears to be fertile Democratic territory. Democrat Anthony Weiner was elected to serve the district in the House of Representatives six times between 1998 and 2010. He was also returned unopposed in 2006, and challenged only by an independent conservative candidate two years later, indicating the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) acceptance of the hopelessness of their situation.

Weiner’s 2010 success came with a majority of over 20 percentage points – nearly 24,000 votes over his Republican challenger, Bob Turner. But in May this year, Weiner was embroiled in a scandal, involving his sending sexually explicit images to one of his followers on Twitter. He initially denied sending the pictures, a stance that only exacerbated his predicament, and which eventually forced his resignation in June.

President Obama would certainly have cursed the timing of the special election held to replace Weiner, but surely would not have envisaged that his party was in danger of losing the seat. The last time the Republicans represented this district was in 1923, the year of the death of incumbent president Warren Harding. Five US presidents had not yet been born.

Opinion polls, however, began to suggest that Bob Turner – the defeated GOP candidate in 2008 – was running ahead of the Democrats’ David Weprin. And on Wednesday, Turner did indeed capture the district for his party, indicating that the Democrats may be in even more dire straits than ten months ago. Less than a week after Obama’s keynote appeal to a joint session of Congress – but of course aimed specifically at the GOP-controlled House of Representatives – he must now contend with an increased Republican majority in the lower chamber.

Predictably, the two parties have reacted very differently to Turner’s victory, adopting the stances political watchers have come to expect after such a result. Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, explained that the result was a direct repudiation of Obama and his policies, indicating that even traditionally liberal areas, such as New York City, were abandoning him. By contrast, Democratic spokespeople emphasised that local issues played a key role, and that the contest should not be extrapolated to the national scene. Whatever one’s interpretation, it was certainly a stunning success for the GOP. Turner was the beneficiary of a fifteen-point swing, with Weprin losing nearly three in five of voters who had selected Weiner last autumn.

The ninth congressional district has a heavy proportion of orthodox Jews, and is thus hardly a representative segment of the United States as a whole. Observers, including the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which described Weprin’s defeat as a ‘Jewish thumping’, have suggested that the President’s relative indifference to Israel – particularly compared with some of his predecessors, notably George W. Bush – cost his party votes.

Turner played on his support for the Jewish community and his party’s traditional pro-Israel stance. Turner, a Roman Catholic, might have been expected to have been at a disadvantage considering that Weprin is Jewish. To win in such circumstances would apparently underline the phenomenon of the victory.

But, despite Weprin’s religion, he was not necessarily seen as a Jew-friendly candidate. He has previously pledged his support for the controversial proposals to build an Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero, a position that is deeply unpopular with many of the Jewish inhabitants of Brooklyn and Queens. In any case, Weprin was generally regarded as a weak candidate, particularly in comparison to the hard-working Turner, who also received high-profile endorsements from former NYC mayors Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

Even so, Turner himself gathered barely half the number of votes received by Weiner in 2010, and just a quarter of Weiner’s 2008 total (albeit when the Democrat’s only opponent was a fringe candidate). Perhaps most damningly for the Republicans’ claims, Turner received fewer votes than he did less than a year ago in the district, and only secured the seat this time because of a complete collapse in the Democratic vote. This was no great endorsement of the GOP – although they do not necessarily require that to win in 2012, as long as there is a dramatic fall in enthusiasm for Obama.

The Massachusetts Senate special election in 2010 bears a resemblance to Turner’s success. In the Bay State vote, held following the death of long-serving Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy, brother of the president, little-known Republican shook Washington by securing an eventually comfortable win.

If Massachusetts, that liberal bastion, had turned red, commentators remarked, Obama was already in huge trouble. But, then too, Brown faced a lazy, lethargic campaign from the Democrats’ Martha Coakley, who seemed to take her election for granted. Brown, by complete contrast, campaigned tirelessly. But Turner did not gain votes in the manner that Brown did – he only lost fewer than his opponent.

It is also somewhat disingenuous of the Republican Party to imply that New York is a homogenous, Democratic-voting liberal block – if any city is a melting-pot of cultures, peoples and political opinions, it is New York. The ninth district, indeed, is one of the most pro-GOP in the city. It backed President Obama by the relatively small margin of eleven percentage points in 2008; this is not the equivalent of the Bronx going Republican, or Utah choosing a Democratic president.

Even so, this will be of no comfort to President Obama, as he continues his nationwide tour to promote his jobs bill. Republicans will be somewhat boosted by the impression of fallibility that surround the president and his party, but they will be acutely aware that there is much work to be done if Obama is to be a one-term commander-in-chief. There was no good news for the White House from the ninth congressional district of the State of New York – but there was also less than might be expected winging its way to Rick Perry and Mitt Romney HQ.

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