By Howard Koplowitz
Democrats may have a 3-1 advantage over Republicans in the 9th Congressional District, but President Barack Obama’s unpopularity and the state of the economy sank state Assemblyman David Weprin’s (D-Little Neck) chances of winning the seat over Republican Bob Turner, according to political observers.
“I think there was a lot of anger about the economy and a lot of anxiety about jobs,” said Elizabeth Holtzman, who held the seat for four terms in the 1970s and 1980s and expressed interest in running this time around, but was passed over in favor of Weprin by Queens Democratic Party Chairman U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights). “People are angry and worried and it’s not only in the 9th Congressional District.”
In Queens, Weprin bested Turner 52 percent to 47 percent, but Turner dominated the Brooklyn portion of the district 67 percent to 33 percent.
In an interview, Weprin said his poor showing in Brooklyn was due to Turner’s having more recognition there — he ran for the seat two years ago — and Weprin’s vote in favor of gay marriage in the state Assembly.
“My support for marriage equality hurt me with the Orthodox [Jewish] community,” he said.
“It was a perfect storm against me,” said Weprin, including “the fact that my opponent successfully made the race a referendum on Obama.”
Weprin said his campaign tried to get out the message that Turner wants to cut the federal budget by 35 percent and slash Medicare and Social Security.
“The media didn’t cover any of that,” he said.
Holtzman, who has strong ties to Brooklyn — she used to be the Brooklyn district attorney — and is familiar to Queens residents for her stint in the House seat that was up for grabs last week, said she believes she would have been a stronger candidate.
“People knew me as a very strong, outspoken fighter for many causes,” she said. “As someone who stood up to a lot of presidents — from Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter, regardless of party — I think people understood I could be a very strong messenger.”
But one political observer said the candidates did not matter as much in the special election as someone who was not running: Obama.
“Congressional elections are generally viewed in the context of the president,” the observer said. “When you’re a Democrat running against a Republican and George Bush is the president, you do well. When you’re a Democrat and Barack Obama is the president, you don’t do as well.”
The observer said the most telling indicator of the outcome of the special election was a Public Policy Polling poll released four days before the contest that showed Obama with a 31 percent approval rating in the 9th Congressional District and a less than 50 percent approval rating among Democrats in the district.
“In the end, I don’t think it mattered much about the candidates,” the observer said. “In a race for Congress, people look first and foremost to the president.”
Turner appeared to gain momentum early in the race when he picked up his first high-profile endorsement, when former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch backed him.
In endorsing Turner, Koch urged voters to cast their ballot for the Republican “to send a message to Obama” on his Israel policy.
“Once Koch injected ‘send a message,’ that was all she wrote for David Weprin,” the observer said. “Koch was not relevant except that he was able to give voice that people who wanted to send a message to Obama [should] send a message to Obama. It was not about gay marriage, it was not about Israel.”
Holtzman agreed the election gave voters unhappy with Obama a reason to vote for Turner.
“Once the race was viewed as sending a message to Washington, there were a lot of people who wanted to send a message to Washington, particularly on the economy,” she said.
In a May congressional special election upstate, the Democratic candidate was not expected to win, but the race occurred a week after Osama bin Laden was killed and Obama’s approval rating at the time was 48 percent.
The Democrat captured 48 percent of the vote and won the election in a three-way race.
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4573.