GOP upset win in NY portends challenge for Obama

September 14, 2011 - 2:45 PM
NY Special Election

Bob Turner, center, joined by his wife Peggy, right, and family smiles as he delivers his victory speech during an election night party, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011 in New York. Turner says his win in a heavily Democratic New York City district is a

NEW YORK (AP) — It sounded improbable on the surface that a New York City congressional district where Democrats have a 3-1 registration edge and have held office for nearly a century could even come close to electing a Republican to the U.S. House.

But voter frustration over the sour economy and President Barack Obama's policies made the improbable a reality, as a Republican political novice, Bob Turner, scored an upset victory in a special election Tuesday over David Weprin, a Democratic assemblyman from a prominent local political family. The surprising results in the Brooklyn and Queens-area district portend a perilous national environment for Obama as he prepares to seek re-election next year.

Turner said as much when he stepped before cameras to claim victory Tuesday night.

"This message will resound for a full year. It will resound into 2012," said Turner, a retired broadcasting executive. "I only hope our voices are heard, and we can start putting things right again."

Weprin called Turner to concede Wednesday morning. With Turner's win, Republicans now hold 242 seats in the House to 192 for Democrats. There is one vacancy.

Also Tuesday, Republican Mark Amodei won a landslide victory in a U.S. House special election in Nevada, an important presidential swing state.

The national mood has darkened since May, when Democrats scored their own unexpected win in another New York special election. Then, Democrat Kathy Hochul won an upset victory in a heavily Republican district by stressing her commitment to protecting Medicare, the government health plan for seniors.

Weprin tried to adopt that strategy, warning that Turner would try to cut programs like Medicare and Social Security. But with unemployment still stubbornly high and voters upset with Washington over the debt ceiling negotiations and continued bad economic news, the pledge to protect entitlements was less resonant this time.

Democratic leaders tried to do damage control Wednesday, blaming the upset on the quirkiness of low-turnout special elections and the specific demographics of the New York district.

"It's not a bellwether district, it's among the most conservative in New York City. Anyone who tries to extrapolate from this district is making a big mistake," New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. Schumer represented the district for nine terms in the House.

Republicans, for their part, seized on Turner's win as reason to push back on Obama's proposed $447 billion jobs program, which he has been promoting at stops across the country.

"Tonight New Yorkers have delivered a strong warning to the Democrats who control the levers of power in our federal government," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. "It's time to scrap the failed 'stimulus' agenda."

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus added: "Tonight's election proves yet again that President Obama is failing our country. Not only are the President's policies not working, but his non-stop campaigning is no longer winning over voters."

Weprin, a 56-year-old Orthodox Jew and member of a prominent Queens political family, initially seemed a good fit for the largely white, working-class district, which is nearly 40 percent Jewish.

But voter frustration with Obama put Weprin in the unlikely spot of playing defense.

While Obama won the district by 11 points in 2008 against Republican John McCain, a Siena Poll released Friday found just 43 percent of likely voters approved of the president's job performance, while 54 percent said they disapproved. Among independents, just 29 percent said they approved of Obama's job performance.

Turner, a 70-year-old Catholic, vowed to push back on Obama's policies if elected. He received help from prominent Republicans including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose much-praised stewardship of the city after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was recalled during the 10th anniversary of the attacks last weekend.

Weprin also became embroiled in New York-centric disputes over Israel and gay marriage, which cost him some support among Jewish voters.

Orthodox Jews, who tend to be conservative on social issues, expressed anger over Weprin's vote in the Assembly to legalize gay marriage. In July, New York became one of six states to recognize same-sex nuptials.

Former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, endorsed Turner in July as a way to "send a message" to Obama on his policies toward Israel. And Weprin was challenged on his support of a proposed Islamic center and mosque near the World Trade Center site, in lower Manhattan.

The House seat opened up when Weiner was pushed by party leaders to resign after sending sexually provocative tweets and text messages to women he met online.

The trouble for Weiner, who served seven terms, began when a photo of a man's crotch surfaced on his Twitter feed. He initially denied the photo was of him but later admitted it was.

Weiner, who's married, resigned June 16 after two weeks of fighting off pressure to step aside. He apologized for "the embarrassment that I have caused" and said he hoped to continue to fight for the causes dear to his constituents.

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Beth Fouhy can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bfouhy