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What’s at stake in the New York special election?

at 03:13 PM ET, 09/13/2011

The special election to replace disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) in a Brooklyn-Queens House seat wasn’t supposed to be close.


The resignation of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner has caused a competitive special election to replace him in New York’s 9th district. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
After all, this is a seat long held by Democrats — including the likes of now Sen. Chuck Schumer and former Rep. Liz Holtzman — and one that President Obama carried by 11 points just three years ago.

But, all sides now agree that today’s contest between state Assemblyman David Weprin (D) and businessman Bob Turner (R) is a nip-and-tuck affair with Democrats privately pessimistic about their chances. (Make sure to offer your own guess on the outcome in our Fix prediction contest.)

So what does the tightness of the race — and the possibility of a Turner upset — tell us about the political landscape?

That, of course, depends on who you ask.

Republicans are working overtime to cast the race as a national referendum on President Obama who, polling suggests, is not terribly popular in the district.

Turner has sought to tie Weprin to Obama on Israel and Weprin himself has tried to put distance between himself and the president. Our favorite quote of the race comes courtesy of Weprin: “I will probably not refuse to endorse [Obama] because I think I will be more effective by supporting him, but at the same time being very strongly against him on some of his policies.”

So, that happened.

Political handicapper (and Fix friend) Stu Rothenberg sees Obama all over the New York special. In a column today he writes:

But make no mistake about it, the albatross around Weprin’s neck is named Obama, and Democrats who value honesty will tell you privately that the president’s 37 percent approval rating in the district is making it difficult for Weprin to win a race that in almost any other time would be a slam dunk, no matter how mediocre a campaign the Democratic nominee ran.

Democrats make the case that the closeness of the race is less due to Obama (or any national factor) than to the fact that this is a surprisingly conservative district — Obama won it by 11 points but only took 55 percent, well below the 63 percent he won statewide — with a few unique quirks that make drawing big-picture conclusions a fool’s errand.

Among them: an Orthodox Jewish community and a large bloc of Catholics in the district that dislike Weprin’s vote for the New York same-sex marriage law, Weprin’s awkwardness as a candidate — this is all you need to know about that — and a lingering case of buyer’s remorse from voters who elected Weiner over Turner in 2010.

The truth, as almost always in politics, is somewhere between those two poles.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that Weprin is something short of a star candidate; he is, in fact, the only guy who seemed to want to run for a seat that is almost certainly going to be redistricted into oblivion some time before November 2012.

And, it’s also true that the ethnic pockets in the district make it something well short of a solidly Democratic seat.

But there’s also little question that if President Obama was at 55 percent (or higher) in this district the race would not be as close as it currently is.

(Also complicating Weprin’s path is Obama’s position on the the boundaries of Israel; Weprin has voiced his disagreement but is clearly being impacted.)

That reality means that a Turner win would, almost certainly, have a chilling effect on Democrats in swing seats and states when it comes to aligning themselves too closely to President Obama on issues big and small.

Politicians pay attention to nothing as closely as they pay attention to which way the political winds are blowing. Politics is, after all, a game of survival. And politicians are the ultimate survivors.

In short: The entire political world will be watching the vote count tonight in New York. Fair or not, a Turner win would be cast as the latest piece of bad news for Democrats nationally and likely lead to a days-long examination/handwringing of what exactly is wrong with the party.

 
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