After losing special House election in New York, Democrats look toward 2012


Republican Bob Turner won the race to succeed Anthony Weiner in New York's 9th congressional district. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
September 14, 2011

The tendency in Washington is to always focus on the next election, so Democrats spent much of Wednesday trying to shake off the beating they took Tuesday in a special congressional election in New York. They said the results were a wake-up call, a pox on both sides, an anomaly and an atypical special election. They acknowledged that the voters were angry.

“Anybody who was asleep after 2010 . . . they should wake up,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (Conn.), who was swept into office in the Democratic wave of 2006. “The fact is that if you spend any time back home in your district, you know this is a climate where you just got to go out and hustle.”

Voters who are disgruntled by President Obama’s handling of the economy elected a tea party Republican to a district that has been in Democratic hands since 1923.

Democrats worry that if the economy does not improve and voter anger does not subside, the 2012 election could be devastating for Obama and congressional Democrats.

“I’ve never seen a feeling like this,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), who was elected to his first term in the Watergate class of 1974, said of the voters. Leahy said that the overall attitude was a “pox on both your houses” for Democrats and Republicans, but suggested that Democrats need to find a way to contain, maybe reverse, this furious state of the electorate.

“It’s still fluid. I think we can turn it around, but there's not much time,” Leahy said.

Hill Democrats face a predicament heading into 2012. The divided Congress has allowed Republicans to dictate what legislation reaches the president’s desk, but many complain that Obama has done too little to defend his agenda against what they view as GOP obstruction.

They liked the tone of the president’s jobs address last Thursday, in which he urged Congress members, particularly Republicans, to set aside their contentious ways and “pass this bill.” But the question is whether the president is going to follow through.

“The level of discontent and fear and anxiety is growing as we are stalled,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “And the president is right to focus on the jobs bill, to try to jump-start the economy. He has to stay on it. Here’s the question: Will you stay with it? You must stay with it. You must stay with the kind of aggressive posture, assertive posture.”

For now, no Democrats are openly talking about running away from Obama in the 2012 election. On Wednesday in North Carolina, Gov. Beverly Perdue, facing a stiff reelection challenge next year, kissed the president upon his arrival to the state to pitch the jobs package and remained at this side as he toured a local business.

Yet it’s unclear how much support Obama will be able to count on from Democrats in pushing his legislative agenda, if he remains a drag on their chances for reelection. Connolly, who represents a swing district in Northern Virginia that is one of the wealthiest in the country, said he will not support proposals from Obama to pay for his plan by limiting deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving for upper-income earners — proposals that have met resistance from other Democrats, too.

Republicans gloated at their victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District — which includes Queens and Brooklyn — by novice politician Bob Turner, a former cable television executive who was once in charge of the Phil Donahue and Jerry Springer shows.

“It’s a heck of a setback for the incumbent party,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Wednesday. “It’s kind of a canary in the coal mine. We went through this when George Bush was in the White House. People tend to blame the party that’s in the White House.”

The official White House position was to play down the significance of Tuesday’s loss on the 2012 contest. The administration said that a large bloc of Orthodox Jewish voters used the election to protest Obama’s support for Palestinian statehood, and insisted that the low turnout is not a harbinger for next year.

“Special elections are often unique and their outcomes do not tell you very much about future regularly scheduled elections,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday aboard Air Force One.

However, a former top Obama adviser said the results in New York, as well as a blowout in a Nevada district that was competitive for Obama in 2008, should cause some alarm.

“Democrats need to know that this is going to be a very tough election for President Obama, and unless people get engaged, it could be catastrophic,” said Bill Burton, the president’s former deputy press secretary.

How nervous are Democrats about 2012? “Probably not nervous enough,” Burton said. “They think, ‘These guys can’t beat President Obama,’ but let me tell you — in a close election, any Republican can.”

That message came through loud and clear to Democrats on Wednesday.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do before the next national elections, there’s no question about that,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the No.3 Democrat in the chamber.

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Wallsten and Scott Wilson contributed to this report

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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