In terms of real-world consequences, it would be hard to find a less significant congressional election than Tuesday’s New York contest, in which Republican Bob Turner won Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner's former seat.
For the next 16 months, Turner will add one more vote to an already solid GOP majority in the House. It is highly unlikely that the fate of any legislation will change with Turner representing the Ninth District’s slice of Brooklyn and Queens rather than his opponent, David Weprin. Or, for that matter, that its fate would be different if Weiner had not driven himself from office by sending photographs of his crotch to women he had never met.
After next year, Turner’s new seat will probably no longer exist. New York is losing two House seats as a result of redistricting, and the Ninth District is an obvious target for elimination. If that happens, the only way Turner can get back to Congress is to win an election in November 2012, in a district that will be carefully drawn to give a neighboring Democratic incumbent (one with more sense than Weiner) a big advantage. Despite Turner’s victory in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one, he is not likely to do it again.
But Turner’s victory is getting national attention because of what it may or may not say about the broader political picture, and particularly about President Obama’s current standing and future prospects. Here, too, I think there is less to the story than meets the eye.
Republicans lost no time in portraying the result as a rebuff to Obama and fellow Democrats. “Tonight New Yorkers have delivered a strong warning to the Democrats who control the levers of power in our federal government,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. “It’s time to scrap the failed ‘stimulus’ agenda.” Turner himself told supporters, “I am the messenger – heed us. This message will resound into 2012.”
The sour economy and stagnant job market were clearly big factors, evident in polling that showed Turner steadily overtaking Weprin as the summer advanced. But the Ninth District is closely aligned with the Democrats on economic issues. This is not Tea Party country, and one of Weprin’s key campaign strategies was to try to tie his opponent as closely as possible to the most fiscally conservative elements of the GOP. The fact that it did not work does not mean voters in New York’s outer boroughs have suddenly become believers in supply-side economics.
Democrats tied themselves in logical knots trying to dismiss Turner’s victory as meaning nothing about anything. My own Florida congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, blamed Weprin’s defeat on the Ninth District’s large concentration of orthodox Jews. Weprin himself is an observant Jew. Weiner is Jewish. Turner is Roman Catholic. Go figure.
Schultz’s reasoning is apparently twofold: First, that the district’s Jewish community agreed with former Mayor Ed Koch that the Obama administration “threw Israel under the bus,” and followed Koch’s advice to vote for Turner as a rebuke; and second, that Weprin, a state assemblyman, offended the socially conservative orthodox community by voting in favor of same-sex marriage.
The problem with this reasoning is that Weiner likewise supported same-sex marriage, or at least consistently opposed efforts to restrict it. Nobody ever hinted that this position could cost Weiner his seat. Nor is it likely that Weiner’s constituents would have turned him out of office to protest Obama’s positions on Israel, which are not very different from those of the Bush and Clinton administrations that preceded him.
To me, the interesting question is this: What would have happened this week if Turner had run against an uncompromised Weiner? As it happens, we can make an educated guess about that possibility, because that was exactly the race that occurred in November 2010.
The background: Weiner won the district in 2008 with 93 percent of the vote. Republicans did not even bother to run a candidate against him that year. But Turner decided to take him on in 2010, the year the Republicans did well enough nationally to recapture the House after four years of the Nancy Pelosi speakership and two years of the Obama administration.
In the Ninth District, Weiner again ran strongly, with 61 percent of the vote. If those voters wanted to rebel against Obama, they had a chance last year and did not take it.
The economy has slowed since last fall; employment has flatlined, and we have all watched this summer’s tug-of-war over federal debt and deficits. Yet I still don’t think enough voters in the Ninth District would have changed their minds to toss Weiner out of Congress had he run against Turner. It would have been closer than last year, but I expect the result would have been the same.
My take is that, as in most special elections below the statewide level, national factors created the environment but local issues made of the difference. Weprin, like most denizens of the New York Legislature, is a reliable party hack. He is not blazingly bright, but he can be counted upon to vote as expected. New York City’s Democratic machine tried to foist him on the Ninth District to keep the seat warm until its elimination. Weprin does not even live in the district. The race soon became entangled in local politics, as various figures jockeyed to improve their positions in the race for New York City mayor in 2013.
The wild card in all this was the Ninth District’s voters. Democrats there were not enthusiastic to begin with, and they had every reason to either stay home or jump ship after their party simply took their votes for granted. Republicans and independents, though a local minority, were certainly fired up to send a message to Washington. The result was an inconsequential one-off victory for the GOP.
New York is not about to go red in the 2012 presidential election. The takeaway from this week’s vote is not that Obama is in danger of losing in the core areas of his support, but that the president and his party are in trouble in the truly competitive swing districts and states. In those places, voters will be asking themselves in 14 months whether their lives have gotten better or worse over the prior four years. Democrats have very good reason to be worried about the answer. We knew this long before the first vote was cast on Tuesday.