Republicans had reasons to cheer and Democrats to despair Wednesday with the upset special election victory in New York City of a Republican retired businessman who will complete the congressional term of Anthony Weiner, the Democrat who exited the U.S. House because of a sexting scandal.
Bob Turner, a 70-year-old former cable television executive, beat David Weprin, a 55-year-old, state assemblyman, in a district which had, until Tuesday, been reliably Democratic for nearly 100 years.
The election was being interpreted by both Democrats and Republicans as a fearful omen for Obama's reelection chances. Republicans nationalized the race, making it a referendum on President Obama's handling of the economy and Middle East policy.
In a statement, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) said:
"This clear rebuke of President Obama's policies delivers a blow to Democrats' goal of making Nancy Pelosi the Speaker again. New Yorkers put Washington Democrats on notice that voters are losing confidence in a President whose policies assault job-creators and affront Israel. An unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide in a 2012 election that is a referendum on his economic policies.
While Democrats privately worried that much of what Sessions said might be true, senior party officials, at least publicly, downplayed what could only be seen as a psychically devastating loss for the party.
Following the loss, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-FL), chair of the Democratic National Committee, demonstrated some of why President Obama chose her to hold that position. From The Wall Street Journal:
Democratic party leaders insisted the loss wasn't a harbinger of things to come. "It's a very difficult district for Democrats," said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, noting its Democratic margins there tend to be the second lowest of all the districts in New York City.
And that was despite Democrats having a 3-to-1 voter registration in the New York's 9th Congressional District, which straddles the New York boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. Also Weiner, who held the seat for seven terms, beat Turner by 20 percentage points last November.
It anything was capable of striking fear in the hearts of Democratic Party officials on Wednesday and in the days and weeks beyond, it was a sentiment expressed by a lifelong Democratic voter to a New York Times reporter:
"I am a registered Democrat, I have always been a registered Democrat, I come from a family of Democrats — and I hate to say this, I voted Republican," said Linda Goldberg, 61, after casting her ballot in Queens. "I need to send a message to the president that he's not doing a very good job. Our economy is horrible. People are scared."
But special elections can have special dynamics which make such races harder to generalize from and this one surely had those. For instance, the district has a large number of orthodox Jews who apparently responded well to Turner's charge that Obama was insufficiently supportive of Israel.
That Turner is a Roman Catholic and Weprin is an observant Jew apparently mattered less than perceptions of Obama's Mideast policies, suggesting that religious identity was paradoxically and simultaneously less and more important in the race. Talk about your Talmudic riddles.
The Republican win in New York City came only months after Democrats celebrated an upset win of their own in western upstate New York. Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul defeated a Republican in what had been a reliably Republican district. That race was nationalized by Democrats to become a referendum on House Republicans' controversial efforts to largely privatize Medicare.
Democrats may not have to worry about Turner for long. He immediately must start running for re-election. Also, his district is likely to be one of the two the state will lose as a result of the decennial reapportionment following the 2010 census.
While Republicans were able to score an upset in New York, Democrats were unable to pull their own upset in Nevada. As expected, Republican Mark Amodei easily beat Democrat Kate Marshall for the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller when he was appointed to fill the seat left open when Jon Ensign resigned because of a sex scandal.