Jewish Activists Differ: Was Israel a Factor in Republican Bob Turner’s Win?

By Patrick Goodenough | September 15, 2011 | 5:33 AM EDT

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Friday, May 20, 2011. Relations between the two have been strained. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

( – Jewish partisans are at odds over the extent to which President Obama’s positions on Israel played a role in the loss of a historically reliable Democratic congressional seat.

GOP Jewish activists attributed Republican Bob Turner’s eight-point win over Democrat David Weprin in New York’s 9th congressional district to concerns about Israel as well as jobs and the economy, while their Democratic counterparts insisted Israel had nothing to do with it.

Reacting to Turner’s victory in the special election to fill the seat vacated by disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matt Brooks said the outcome had “huge implications for 2012 races in states with large Jewish communities, such as Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.”

“This Republican win in an overwhelmingly Democrat district is a significant indicator of the problem that President Obama has in the Jewish community,” he said. “While party leaders scramble to deny and try to stem the erosion of Jewish support for Democrats, the real issue is this President's policies on Israel, on jobs, and on the economy.”

But National Jewish Democratic Council president and CEO David Harris disputed the Israel factor.

“One thing we know beyond the shadow of a doubt is that this election was about many things, but not Israel,” he said in a statement, attributing at least some of Weprin’s defeat to the “overwhelmingly unfavorable view of Mr. Weiner.”

To support his argument Harris noted a Siena College Research Institute poll last week in which only seven percent of 9th congressional district respondents named the candidates’ position on Israel as the single most important factor in their voting decision – compared to one-third who cited economic recovery and 28 percent who pointed to the candidates’ stance on federal entitlements.

Harris said the Republican and Democratic candidates in the race “agreed completely on Israel; both clearly supported a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, with not a bit of difference between them.”

“In the end, in this difficult economy, Americans are hurting,” he added. “And the same is true in New York’s Ninth District.”

A part of the Siena poll not referred to by Harris indicated that respondents’ views on the president contributed to the outcome. Obama received a 54 percent unfavorability rating (up from 52 in a similar poll one month earlier) and a 43 percent unfavorability rating (down from 43 percent on Aug. 10).

According to the RJC, New York’s 9th is “the most heavily-Jewish congressional district in the U.S.”

The district, which incorporates parts of Brooklyn and Queens, has not sent a Republican to the U.S. Congress since the 1920s. The district favored Obama over Sen. John McCain by 55-44 points in 2008, Sen. John Kerry over President Bush by 56-44 points in 2004, and Vice-President Al Gore over Gov. Bush by 67-30 points in 2000.

Republican Bob Turner will be the first Republican New York's 9th congressional district sends to the U.S. Congress in decades. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Last July, Democratic former NYC Mayor Ed Koch endorsed Turner, linking the move directly to the administration’s Israel policies.

If Jewish New Yorkers and others who support Israel were to turn away from the Democratic Party and elect the Republican candidate to Congress in 2011, it might very well cause President Obama to change his hostile position on the State of Israel and to re-establish the special relationship presidents before him had supported,” the New York Post quoted Koch as saying.

Polls show declining support

Whether or not Israel was in the end a big factor in the special election, the Democratic Party is evidently concerned about the perception that Obama is not as supportive of the Jewish state as predecessors have been.

The Obama 2012 campaign’s newly-launched Web site responding to Republican criticism of the president, Attack Watch, features “Israel and Middle East Falsehoods” as one of four key current focus areas. (The other three deal with immigration reform, gun control and TARP bank bailouts.)

The Democratic National Committee describes Attack Watch as “a new tool to fight the right-wing smears and misinformation that opponents are spreading about President Obama and his record.”

The site’s “Israel and Middle East Falsehoods” section quotes two prominent Israelis – dovish president Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, former leader of the center-left Labor Party – as acknowledging Obama’s support for Israel.

Absent is any reference to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose relations with Obama have been strained over the administration’s stance on construction in Jerusalem and future borders between Israel and a Palestinian state.

National exit polls in 2008 indicated that Obama won some 77 percent of the Jewish vote to McCain’s 22 – about the same as exit polls gave Bush in 2004 (although some argue that exit polls have underrepresented Jewish voters).

Gallup polls have shown Obama’s job approval among Jewish Americans steadily eroding since he took office – from 83 percent in early 2009 down to a low of 54 percent late last year – higher than adult Americans overall but mirroring the declining trend. Last June it stood at 60 percent.

See also:
Israel Looms As a Key Issue in GOP Primaries

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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