By Cameron Joseph - 09/13/11 09:00 AM EDT
A looming Democratic loss in New York’s special election Tuesday would be seen as a sign of big political and policy problems for President Obama and his party heading into next year’s election.
Democrats have held former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) district since it was created, but two polls conducted in the past week show Republican candidate Bob Turner has a strong chance of capturing the seat.
“If Turner wins on Tuesday, it will be largely due to the incredible unpopularity of Barack Obama dragging his party down in the district,” wrote Tom Jensen of the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling, one of the firms whose poll had Turner in the lead.
The PPP poll found that Democratic candidate David Weprin has a net positive approval rating, but the president’s job approval rating had slipped to 31 percent in the district, which he won with 55 percent in 2008.
“If Obama’s approval in the district was even 40 percent Weprin would almost definitely be headed to Congress,” Jensen wrote. “He’s getting dragged down by something bigger than himself.”
A Democratic strategist said Obama has become such a problem for down-ticket Democrats that he was wary of encouraging candidates to run next year. “I’m warning my clients — ‘Don’t run in 2012.’ I don’t want to see good candidates lose by 12 to 15 points because of the president,” said the strategist.
National Democrats have parachuted in since the race tightened: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $500,000 on television ads in the highly expensive media market, while the Democratic outside group House Majority PAC has spent an additional $100,000.
The race might point to another trend: a softening in Obama support from the Jewish community, which strongly backed him in 2008. The district has one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the country.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a prominent Jewish congressman, said the Jewish vote is a concern for his party.
“I think Jewish voters will be Democratic and be for Obama in 2012, especially if you get a Republican candidate like [Texas] Gov. [Rick] Perry,” he said. “But there’s no question the Jewish community is much more bipartisan than it has been in previous years. There are Jews who are trending toward the Republican Party, some of it because of their misunderstanding of Obama’s policies in the Middle East, and some of it, quite frankly, for economic reasons. They feel they want to protect their wealth, which is why a lot of well-off voters vote for Republicans.”
The district has been represented previously by some of the most prominent names in national politics: Weiner and now-Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
It has been moving away from the Democratic Party since Sept. 11, 2001, although Weiner had done well there up until his resignation in June.
Turner got some early momentum when a prominent Democrat crossed party lines and endorsed him. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (D) sent a message to Obama about his policies toward Israel with his endorsement of the Catholic Turner over Weprin, an Orthodox Jew.
Democrats, meanwhile, complain the Weprin campaign failed to reach out effectively to the sizeable Asian and Hispanic communities in the district, leaving the electorate whiter and more conservative than it could have been.
Former National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said the national implications of House special elections are often overstated, and argued that the Democrats’ last big special-election win, when Democrat Kathy Hochul won a Republican-leaning upstate New York seat, had similarly been as much about local issues and campaign tactics as the national mood.
But Reynolds said that special-election victories can be useful for parties to build political narratives around.
“Let’s call up the national spin model: The Democrats have touted the Hochul win as a referendum on the House Republicans and the [Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul] Ryan budget plan [to privatize Medicare], but anyone who understood the race knew that wasn’t really the case,” he said. “I’m sure the Republicans will be able to put together a national spin model — they’ll want to talk about what they see as the reaction of the American people based on” the New York race.
Former Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), another ex-chairman of the NRCC, said the race does have national implications. “Each district has its components, but this is a liberal Democratic district, don’t kid yourself,” he said. “We know the president’s numbers are in the tank and [a Republican win] would be a very physical manifestation of that.”
This is not the only local race where Democrats have struggled recently because of Obama’s poor numbers. Republicans are expecting to easily hold a Republican-leaning northern Nevada congressional seat in another special election on Tuesday, and they came closer than expected in a special election in a Los Angeles-based congressional seat earlier this summer.
Also, a Republican win in New York will scramble the state’s redistricting process. New York is losing two seats, and the Democrats and Republicans who share control of the state’s line-drawing process were expected to ax this district as well as a Republican one in the upstate area. But Republicans will be less willing to have two of their districts put on the chopping block.
A Republican win would also end a string of Democratic special-election victories in New York and give the local GOP some payback. Besides Hochul’s 2010 win, Democrats Bill Owens and Scott Murphy won open House seats in Republican-leaning districts in 2009, although Murphy went on to lose his reelection campaign in 2010.
A senior Democratic strategist agreed that Obama’s numbers have been worrying down-ticket Democrats, and that a New York special-election loss would heighten their concerns.
“The one thing that’s going to resonate in the echo chamber is the president is really pulling down people’s numbers,” he said. “Democrats are going to start getting a little nervous.”