Updated: 12:42 a.m.
Republican Bob Turner scored an upset victory Tuesday in a New York special election, delivering an embarrassing rebuke for national Democrats and an ominous political sign for the White House.
The Associated Press called the 9th district race at midnight, with Turner ahead of Democrat David Weprin 54 percent to 46 percent with 81 percent of precincts reporting.
Turner’s win came despite a late blitz of Democratic money trying to save the seat formerly held by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D), including a half-million-dollar television ad buy from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Despite the district’s more than 3-to-1 Democratic voter registration advantage, his massive fundraising lead and his campaign’s enormous voter identification and get-out-the-vote effort, Weprin came up short.
Democrats and Republicans agree that Weprin was not a very good candidate. And the district’s political leanings were more nuanced, with many conservative-leaning voters registered as Democrats, than the recent media narrative indicated.
But the election became, in many ways, a national referendum on the state of the economy and whether the country was on the right track. And voters made clear they were deeply unhappy with the status quo.
In a recent Siena College poll of likely voters, 74 percent said the country was headed in the wrong direction. In another survey by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, President Barack Obama’s job approval in the district was at a surprising 31 percent, with 56 percent saying they disapprove of the job he is doing.
“This clear rebuke of President Obama’s policies delivers a blow to Democrats’ goal of making Nancy Pelosi the Speaker again,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said in a statement. “An unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide in a 2012 election that is a referendum on his economic policies.”
There were also more complicated factors at play in Turner’s upset victory.
The district had been trending more Republican over the past several years. Obama picked up 55 percent of the vote there in 2008. And the turnout for a special election in September of an off year can be unusually skewed in one direction or another.
Democrats note that regardless of how Weprin performed as a candidate, he was seen as the incumbent in an atmosphere toxic to those associated with the status quo. And unlike the recent Democratic victory in the special election in New York’s 26th district, where Democrats were able to define the GOP candidate early, the Big Apple’s expensive media market made substantial TV buys before the final days impossible.
No matter the mitigating factors, losing a Democratic district in the heart of New York City is terrible news for Democrats from Rep. Joe Crowley, the Queens County Democratic Party chairman, to the president.
New York Rep. Steve Israel, the chairman of the DCCC, had already started attempting to deflect blame earlier this week.
“I know Steve Israel has been telling anyone he talks to about what a terrible candidate he thinks Weprin is,” a Democrat deeply familiar with the district told Roll Call late Monday. The DCCC declined repeated requests to comment all day Tuesday.
The source said it was likely that much of the blame would end up at Weprin’s doorstep.
“The problem with when you’re a losing candidate ... you really don’t have a great voice of your own to push back. So everyone just wants to pile in on you [and say] ‘You did a shitty job.’ In this case, it’s probably true,” the Democrat said.
Turner, now a Representative-elect, told Roll Call on Monday night that the whole experience had become a bit dreamlike.
“The highlight of the day was Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani coming into the district, where we had a press conference and it looked absolutely presidential,” Turner said with a laugh. “We had a dozen cameras. ... This whole thing has been surreal.”
Asked what he was thinking while standing with Giuliani facing a battery of cameras and the New York and national media, Turner laughed again.
“I just had to do a reality check every now and then,” he said. “You know, I volunteered to do a job, and it’s kind of taking off.”