NEW YORK – Underdogs often try to nationalize special congressional elections. This time, Republicans are internationalizing a race in this city’s outer boroughs.
In a seven-minute endorsement of Republican Bob Turner, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani devoted two-thirds of his talk Monday to an issue that in almost any other district would be a non-factor: the Palestinian Authority. New York’s 9th Congressional District, occupying a large chunk of Queens and a slice of Brooklyn, has the most Jewish voters of the nation’s 435 House districts, according to GOP officials.
So, in the surprisingly close special election Tuesday to replace disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D), the issue of defending Israel and potential Palestinian statehood could tip the balance for Turner and send a Republican to represent this region for the first time since the Coolidge administration.
The race comes at an already tenuous time for U.S.-Israeli relations, with the Palestinian Authority next week expected to ask the United Nations Security Council for statehood. Obama will also travel to New York early next week to make a speech before the U.N. General Assembly.
To be sure, several other issues are also playing outsized roles in this election, particularly President Obama’s deep unpopularity due to the sagging economy and a Democratic candidate, state Assemblyman David Weprin, who is far from dynamic.
Turner has sought to peel off support from the thousands of Orthodox Jewish voters who normally support Democrats, using Obama’s backing of a Palestinian state and Israel’s return to its 1967 borders as a wedge issue.
Never mind that the Obama administration’s position is not all that different from that of the George W. Bush’s administration, and never mind that Weprin is an Orthodox Jew himself and has visited Israel eight times. This is about Obama and his relationship with a segment of the population that has never been particularly comfortable with him.
“I think it will be like a wake-up call to the Obama administration to have a realistic policy about the Middle East. Israel is our ally, not the Palestinian Authority,” Giuliani said Monday afternoon at a Turner rally. He said recognizing Palestine would be akin to “establishing another terrorist state” alongside Syria and Iran.
Weprin is clearly on the defensive about the issue. Two hours before the Giuliani-Turner event, Weprin and a string of local Democratic officials devoted large portions of their rallies to Weprin’s long-held backing of Israel. “Israel won’t have a stronger supporter than me,” Weprin said inside the Queens County Democratic Party headquarters.
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called Weprin “somebody who has never wavered in his commitment” to Israel.
Many of these Jewish voters are socially conservative and were much more inclined to support the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, in presidential races than Obama. Back in 2000 this district gave Al Gore, the Clinton’s vice president, 67 percent of the vote, but Obama received just 55 percent in 2008. In his three mayoral races, Giuliani won the district each time.
As Weiner demonstrated, a Jewish Democrat could easily hold this seat; in 2010, the worst cycle for Democrats in a generation, Turner received barely 40 percent in his bid against Weiner, who coasted to his sixth straight House term.
The Israel-Palestinian issue alone is not enough to tip the race for Turner, according to Democratic and Republican officials. Obama has long struggled with working-class ethnic male voters, who in this district are commonly referred to as the “Archie Bunker” vote, and these voters have drifted far away from Obama as the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above 9 percent for almost all of the last 27 months. Obama’s approval rating in the 9th district is anywhere from the mid-30s to the low-40s, according to public and private polling.
One GOP official estimated that Weprin’s problems could be broken down this way: 40 percent from the “Bunker” vote, 40 percent from the Jewish vote and 20 percent from the “hope” vote (those young 20-somethings who came out in droves for Obama in 2008 who’ve grown disaffected).
Weprin has become the equivalent of what pollsters call a “generic Democrat,” a person with whom the 9th district voters have no direct connection – he lives outside the district lines – and someone who’s been around city and state government for at least two decades. Republicans have used that to their advantage, turning the race entirely into a referendum on Obama’s policies. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a prominent Jewish leader, tapped into this vein many weeks ago when he endorsed Turner by telling other Jewish voters that they needed to “send a message” to Obama about his Israel policy.
On Monday Giuliani avoided almost any criticism of Weprin other than to say that in the House he would be “another vote for Barack Obama probably 90 percent of the time.” He ignored Weprin’s own views on Israel and mocked Obama, as have other GOP allies of Israel. “No matter who wins in the special election in New York’s 9th congressional district on Tuesday,” Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks said, “this race highlights the serious problems that President Obama has in the Jewish community because of his policies regarding Israel.”