NEW YORK (JTA) – Was it Israel, same-sex marriage or the Obama administration’s handling of the economy?
That’s the question political partisans and observers are debating after Republican Bob Turner won an upset victory in the heavily Democratic and Jewish New York congressional district represented by Anthony Weiner until his scandal-induced resignation in mid-June.
Turner beat his Democratic opponent, New York State Assemblyman David Weprin, in Tuesday’s special election by a margin of 54 to 46 percent, with more than four-fifths of precincts reporting.
The race was closely watched as a measure of attitudes toward President Obama, and the Jewish vote was a particular focus of attention. In the lead-up to the election, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, urged voters to support Turner in order to send a message of dissatisfaction to Obama over his policies toward Israel.
“This Republican win in an overwhelmingly Democrat district is a significant indicator of the problem that President Obama has in the Jewish community,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a statement. “While party leaders scramble to deny and try to stem the erosion of Jewish support for Democrats, the real issue is this president’s policies on Israel, on jobs, and on the economy.”
But the president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, David A. Harris, said that negative views of Weiner meant “keeping this seat in Democratic hands has been an uphill battle.” He also noted the “difficult economy,” saying that “In this atypical district, they’ve reacted atypically.”
In his statement, Harris said, “One thing we know beyond the shadow of a doubt is that this election was about many things — but not Israel.”
Harris cited a Siena Research Institute poll, conducted Sept. 6-8, showing that only 7 percent of the district’s voters had identified Israel as the main factor in determining their votes. The poll also found that 16 percent of the district’s Jewish voters said a candidate’s Israel stance would be the most important factor in determining their vote.
By contrast, 30 percent of those polled said a candidate’s position on the economy was the most important factor, and 20 percent cited Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs as the top issue.
Some Republicans, however, pointed to a pre-election survey from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-aligned firm. That poll, conducted Sept. 8-11, showed that 54 percent of district voters disapproved of Obama’s policy toward Israel. It also found that among the 37 percent of voters who identified Israel as very important, Turner was leading by a 71-22 margin.
The election’s outcome, some suggested, sent a signal of the direction that the Jewish vote was headed for the 2012 presidential contest.
“It is a segment of the American electorate which is up for grabs which hasn’t been until now,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and Fox News commentator. He said that an erosion of the traditionally strong Jewish support for Democrats could be significant in swing states such as Florida, Nevada and Ohio.
“It’s not a pro-Republican vote, but it certainly is an anti-Democratic vote. And it’s an anti-Obama vote,” Luntz added, regarding the New York election.
Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, initially led in pre-election polls. But Turner, a retired television executive who was a creator of “The Jerry Springer Show,” pulled ahead during the past month. Turner had portrayed the race as a referendum on Obama’s policies.
“This message will resound for a full year,” Turner said at his victory party. “It will resound into 2012.”
Turner may not have the opportunity to run for re-election in 2012. With New York State slated to lose two congressional seats due to reapportionment, many expect that Turner’s seat will be eliminated.
His victory came despite the Democrats’ strong advantage in voter registration in the middle-class Brooklyn and Queens district, which is 57 percent Democratic and only 18 percent Republican. Observers, however, have noted that the district trends more conservative than the registration numbers might suggest.
Despite the Democrats’ 37-point edge in voter registration in 2008, New York Times election analyst Nate Silver noted that Obama only carried the district by 11 percentage points. U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) took a similar proportion of the vote as the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004, though the Gore-Lieberman ticket did significantly better in 2000.
In any case, a Republican has not been elected to represent the district since 1920.
New York’s 9th Congressional District had the fourth-largest Jewish population of any congressional district, with some 173,000 Jews, according to a 2009 report from the Mandell L. Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank. Jerry Skurnik, a partner at the political consulting firm Prime New York, told The New York Times that about a third of the district’s active voters are Jewish.
However, the district’s Jewish demographics are somewhat unusual, with sizable concentrations of Orthodox Jews and Russian Jews who tend to lean more conservative in their voting behavior.
For all the focus on the Jewish vote, it is not clear which candidate actually won it. Polls released in the days before the election offered conflicting findings. The Public Policy Polling survey had Turner leading by 17 percentage points among Jews, while the Siena poll had Weprin up by 6 points.
However, the Siena poll did find that 54 percent of the district’s likely Jewish voters said they had an unfavorable view of the president, with 42 percent viewing him favorably — figures that almost exactly matched the views of the district’s voters overall.
Turner worked aggressively to tie Weprin to Obama. A Turner ad blasted both Obama and Weprin for supporting the right to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero. (Weprin has said that while he supports the right to build the center at the location, he would prefer that it be moved elsewhere.) Weprin, for his part, aired an ad accusing Turner of having “Tea Party budget ideas.”
Weprin tried to distance himself from the president, highlighting his criticisms of the president’s policies toward Israel. Indeed, the Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group critical of Obama, created an Internet video with footage of both Turner and Weprin blasting the president on Israel.
In August, when asked whether he would endorse Obama’s re-election, Weprin demurred, saying he was focused on his own race. Later, when pressed on the issue by the New York Jewish Week, Weprin responded, “I am a Democrat and I expect to probably support him as the Democratic candidate.”
Weprin also faced a challenge on the issue of same-sex marriage, with some in the Orthodox community criticizing him for his vote in the state Assembly to legalize it. Fellow New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Democrat who has been known to cross party lines, blasted Weprin’s stance on the issue and backed Turner.
However, The Jewish Press, a prominent Brooklyn-based Orthodox weekly, endorsed Weprin, citing his support for social welfare programs and his opponent’s calls for government spending cuts.
“While there have been several critical rabbinic pronouncements regarding Mr. Weprin’s support for New York’s same-sex marriage legislation, by no means has there been an emergent consensus that this should drive voter choice,” The Jewish Press wrote in an editorial.