Democrats went into overdrive Wednesday after the GOP captured a New York House seat the party had held for almost a century, attempting to neutralize the inevitable conclusions drawn about the impact of the loss on Democrats' 2012 prospects.
Democrats expected an easy win early in the campaign and President Obama had won the district in 2008 by 11 points. So, the Republican upset struck many as an ominous sign of things to come for the party next year as it works to take back the House, maintain control of the Senate and reelect the president.
The district has actually long been safe Democratic territory, making David Weprin’s (D) loss to Bob Turner (R) even more stinging.
“We are not going to sugar coat it, this was a tough loss,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) wrote in a memo, saying the race represented a single moment and didn’t define Democrats' long-term prospects.
“NY-09 was never a part of the DCCC’s strategic plan to win the House in 2012 because the district will likely be eliminated in New York’s congressional redistricting,” the statement said.
While that may have been true before, it’s not a sure bet anymore. With New York set to lose two seats, both parties expected to sacrifice a district, and for Democrats, that was likely NY-09, which was held by former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) until his resignation. Now, Republicans are expected to seek another Democratic district to eliminate.
In Nevada's Tuesday special House race, the Republican trounced the Democrat by more than 20 points. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the GOP success in both races a referendum on the failed policies of Obama and Democrats in Congress, and a rejection of Obama’s recently released jobs plan.
But the White House dismissed that contention, arguing that special elections say little about what’s to come in the next regular election. “You can make those predictions and look foolish in 14 months or not, I'm simply saying we do not view it (as a referendum),” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
But after New York’s last special House election, which Democrat Kathy Hochul won in May, Democrats were quick to hold it up as a tea leaf foretelling Democrats’ ability to take back the House in 2012. Democrats need to flip 25 GOP seats to take control of the lower chamber.
This time, House Democrats took the opposite approach.
“There are a lot of pundits out there looking for predictions about results in 2012,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) said Wednesday on the conference call, which was part of the party's attempt to staunch the bleeding from the loss. “If you're looking for a prediction like that, you should really be looking at the president's standing against the Republican candidates in the battleground states.”
Recent polls have shown Obama on roughly even ground with the leading GOP presidential candidates. But a Bloomberg poll released Wednesday found Obama’s job approval ratings at 45 percent – the lowest since he took office.
Democrats were scrambling Wednesday also to shoot down assertions that Obama had lost the Jewish vote. Momentum in the New York race started swinging away from Democrats right around the time that numerous leaders in the district’s large Orthodox Jewish community endorsed the Republican, arguing that Obama needed to be sent a message that his support for Israel was insufficient.
That raised alarms for Democrats, who have long had a monopoly Jewish voters and who rely on their support and fundraising in states such as Florida, New York and California, which have large Jewish populations.
“I’m confident the president — all over the country — will receive the overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote," said Wasserman-Shultz, who is Jewish. She called Obama’s record on Israel “incredible strong” and said the contrast between the views of Democrats and Republicans on domestic issues including education and healthcare would be too large for Jewish voters to ignore.
Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) said he wasn't concerned about an unpopular president dragging down the rest of the Democratic ticket in competitive districts, noting his own success in 2008 despite Obama's loss in his district.
"In districts where those members have not worked to represent their constituents the way they should, the way they want to be represented, it’s going to be difficult for them," Shuler said. "But I think our Blue Dogs have shown our independence, and that’s why we will be successful in this next election."
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) offered up hope that Democratic losses in 2011 would have an ironic silver lining in 2012.
"All I know is we won all the special elections last time and look what happened," he said, referring to Democratic successes in 2009-2010 before they wiped out in November. "Maybe we're going to do great this coming season," he added to laughter.
Russell Berman contributed. This post was updated at 5:15 p.m.