One could almost hear the collective gasps of Democrats from New York to Washington Tuesday night, as conservative Republican Bob Turner won the nationally-watched special election for the seat of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D.-NY). In a New York City district (Brooklyn-Queens) in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1 and which has not had a Republican House Member since 1922, the 70-year-old retired television executive defeated State Assemblyman and Democratic nominee David Weprin by a margin of 50% to 47%, with the remaining 3% going to Christopher Hoeppner of the Socialist Workers Party.
Speaking to HUMAN EVENTS a few hours before the voting booths closed in New York’s 9th District, Turner predicted the national tremors that would be generated if he emerged triumphant. As he told us, “If [Weprin] loses tonight, it will reflect poorly on the national Democratic Administration.”
He was right. Turner, who drew a strong 42% of the vote against Weiner last fall, had been an unabashed conservative who called for cutting personal and corporate taxes (“just like Reagan”), supported repeal of ObamaCare, and took culturally conservative stands on issues such as abortion and marriage. The only major issue on which Turner broke with most national Republicans was on the budget plan of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.)–the New Yorker saying he would not support its controversial proposal for reform of Medicare.
That someone so conservative could win in a district with the makeup and history of New York-9 meant that national factors had to play a big part in the special election. It was telling that during the close of the campaign, Weprin emphasized his expertise as a public servant rather than specific issues and his support from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rather than that of President Obama. (While Obama was making appearances in Iowa, Ohio, and Virginia over the past few weeks, he never made a stop near Brooklyn or Queens.)
“The election is a protest vote against Obama,” concluded David Pietrusza, historian and author who knows all things New York. “The Turner win is as significant as [Republican] Scott Brown’s was for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts last year and [Democrat] Harris Wofford’s win in the Pennsylvania special election for the Senate in 1991.”
Koch Endorsement “Major Selling Point”
As to what was the key element in his catching up with and eventually leading Weprin in the polls, Turner himself told us that it was his early endorsement by former New York Mayor and lifelong Democrat Ed Koch. In making clear his disagreement with Turner on social issues and many spending issues, Koch specifically said his election would send a message of protest to the Obama Administration over its support for a Palestinian State and Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders.
“Mayor Koch’s endorsement was certainly a major selling point for us,” said Turner, noting that many prominent leaders in the Jewish community (which comprises about 20% of the 9th District) weighed in for him after Koch did. Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, an Orthodox Jew, announced he would support the Republican candidate over the issue of Israel. In the twilight days of the campaign, a Turner mailing featured an elderly Holocaust survivor and lifelong Democrat who announced a first-time vote for a Republican, Bob Turner.
When HUMAN EVENTS asked Turner the issues that fueled his eventually triumphant campaign, he said: “Jobs, the economy, and Israel.” (Weprin was himself an Orthodox Jew who disagreed with the Administration on Israel but this was clearly trumped by Koch’s call that a win by Turner would register the strongest protest to Obama over the issue.)
To the three “red meat” issues cited by Turner, many other observers we spoke to added that of gay marriage. More than 40 Orthodox Jewish rabbis signed a letter denouncing Weprin’s vote for the measure when it passed the New York Assembly and endorsing Turner, a Roman Catholic. In addition, the National Organization for Marriage spent more than $75,000 on pro-Turner mailings focusing on the marriage issue.
Issues notwithstanding, there is strong agreement among New York pundits that Weprin was a flawed candidate. He twice lost races for NYC Council Speaker and finished fourth and last in the race for Democratic nomination for New York City comptroller. This year, he was nominated for Congress by a caucus of Democratic leaders only after his brother, City Councilman Mark Weprin, indicated he wasn’t interested in the race.
Historian Pietruzsa was on target in citing the impact of special elections on subsequent national campaigns. Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts was the first shot in the Republican resurgence in the 2010 midterm campaigns, while Harris Wofford’s Pennsylvania victory in 1991 started the Democratic march culminating in Bill Clinton’s election a year later.
Should Republicans emerge in 2012 with control of Congress and the White House, a strong argument will surely be made that it all started with Bob Turner’s triumph in New York Tuesday night.