How Turner Won NY-09 -- and What It Means for 2012

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From Israel to the economy, voters turned against the party in power and the nice-guy Democrat painted as an Obama in miniature

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QUEENS, N.Y. -- With 87 percent of precincts reporting, and 54 percent of the vote in the Republican column, retired media executive Bob Turner has been declared the victor in the race to fill Anthony Weiner's old congressional seat. It's a race that Turner won, but Democratic candidate David Weprin also helped to lose. Here are the on the ground takeaways about what fed the historic upset in Brooklyn and Queens:

The Economy, and Barack Obama: Voters in the 9th congressional district in New York were worried and angry about the state and direction of the American economy. For one thing, that's what they told pollsters. Nearly a third said that economic recovery was driving their vote, and another third cited concern over preserving entitlement programs -- Medicare and Social Security, which Turner pledged to defend against bipartisan reform efforts. For another, talk of jobs and the economy was everywhere in the district. Both Turner and Weprin labored to make the race a referendum on those issues, hoping such talk would break their way. In hindsight, it was a smarter bet for the Republican. "Our internal polling actually had us up before the debt ceiling debate," said Mark Weprin, a New York City councilman and the Democratic candidate's older brother, at an election night watch event in Forest Hills. "But people were mad, and they needed something to be mad at. And the people they had to be mad at -- the sort of establishment people -- were Barack Obama and David Weprin."

Israel, and Barack Obama: The Turner campaign certainly helped channel voter angst, taking every opportunity it could to tie Obama and Weprin in the minds of voters. But it didn't stop on the economy. Turner, a Catholic, was enormously successful in painting himself as a more steadfast and enthusiastic friend to Israel than Weprin, an Orthodox Jew. The argument: Obama is weak on Israel and disrespected Benjamin Netanyahu by reportedly walking out on him this spring. And Weprin, as a loyal Democrat, supports Obama's Israel policy (despite Weprin's insistence that he really, really doesn't). "The two candidates agreed completely on Israel; both clearly supported a strong U.S.-Israel relationship," wrote the Democratic Party-affiliated National Jewish Democratic Council in its election post-mortem, "with not a bit of difference between them." They might be right on substance. But voters seemed to latch onto the notion that a vote for Weprin was the weaker option when it came to Israel.

Success in conservative Jewish communities looks to have provided a meaningful edge. "The Orthodox and Hasidic communities came out," observed Queens Republican Party executive chair Vince Tabone at Turner's watch party in Howard Beach last night. Turner did far better in the Brooklyn slice of the district that is home to many of those targeted voters, winning 67 percent of the vote, than in NY-9 as a whole.

Did We Mention the U.S. Economy and Barack Obama? Importantly, the Turner campaign was able to bundle concerns over Obama's handling of economic issues and worries over his Israeli policy into one big general sense of dis-ease about the American president, and thus Weprin. Said Conservative Party of New York chair Michael R. Long last night: "It's a whole combination of failures in the White House. It's taxes. It's Medicare. It's the umbrage over treating our best ally [that is, Israel] that way." And here was Speaker John Boehner, tweeting last night: "His pro-jobs agenda & strong support for Israel clearly resonated w/ NYC voters." And National Republican Congressional Committee Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, put out this statement: "New Yorkers put Washington Democrats on notice that voters are losing confidence in a President whose policies assault job-creators and affront Israel." The Turner campaign never fully articulated what, exactly, was wrong with the president in a way that encompassed both economic issues and Israel. But it validated voters' sense that something simply isn't totally right with the guy.

"Tea Party Turner": Democrats' efforts to brand the Republican as a Medicare-scrapping "scary, scary" uber-conservative, to borrow a phrase from one Weprin campaign surrogate, fell flat. In part, that's because of the 70-something Turner's own vibe: more late-in-life Senator Frank Lautenberg than Michele Bachmann on the stump. Turner had another asset: voters got a chance to meet him during his high-performing but losing 2010 challenge to Weiner. "Bob Turner has been running for office for 14 months," said Tabone. Caricatures that otherwise might have stuck during a compressed special election campaign were undermined by the general familiarity with Turner among likely voters.

Team Weprin: A member of a prominent Queens political family, Weprin was hand-selected by the Queens Democratic Party machine to run in the district -- one that was on the redistricting chopping block. He was not all that well-served by the apparatus at that point, or since. While election turn-out was respectable, if a little low at 60,000 and counting, the Weprin campaign never got fully into gear. Certainly, its opponents were pleased. "It was like, 'We hit you, and when are you going to respond already?'," said Tabone. The Democrat often seemed to be stuck playing defense in a contest whose terms were dictated by the Republicans, rather than charting his own course. Weprin has been derided as an exceptionally poor candidate. That's not entirely unfair. "It was good, but he spoke a little too loud," said an understated Marvin Gedaly at a Weprin campaign event at a senior center in Forest Hills in the campaign's final days, after Weprin absolutely blared his final sales pitch into the microphone. But, in truth, Weprin wasn't always terrible on the stump. Still, he wasn't very impressive, either. In the end, he got branded with a potentially deadly label in the hyper-critical New York political environment: a good enough fella, yep. But a disaster on the issues.

"It was the perfect storm," said Tabone. "We had an environment where people were disgusted with the idea of more of the same for the country. And we had a candidate who, well, he's a mensch, but he's just really lackluster."

If 'lackluster mensch' sounds familiar, it might be because it's the same undermining impression that national Republicans have been trying to create about Obama. Case in point: "This president is a nice guy," said Mitt Romney at the recent Republican presidential primary debate at the Reagan library. "[But] he doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again." There's little that happened in NY-9 last night to dissuade Republicans from trying to stick that on Obama again.

See earlier: "Bob Turner Wins NY-09 in an Upset"

Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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