Democrats Jump the Shark in New York Special

September 13, 2011

Acting as if the loss of a special election in New York’s 9th district would be catastrophic, national Democrats are pouring everything they can into winning today’s special election.

I understand their reasoning, of course. I’m simply not sure I agree completely.

State Assemblyman David Weprin (D) is desperately trying to hold on to a seat for Democrats that was left open by the resignation of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D).

After pooh-poohing the prospects of Republican businessman Bob Turner for weeks and belittling independent and GOP polling showing a tight race (or Turner leading Weprin), national Democrats have finally sounded the alarm, warning that a Turner victory is indeed possible in a district that went solidly for Barack Obama in 2008.

It isn’t just the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that is sounding the alarm. Even the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which often sees itself as much as a competitor to the DCCC as an ally, is asking Democrats to help save Weprin.

Democratic insiders acknowledge that Weprin — a New York Assemblyman selected to be the party’s nominee by Queens Democratic Party Chairman Rep. Joe Crowley — has been an underwhelming candidate, and they readily assign some of the blame for his problems to the candidate.

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.

Polling conducted by Siena College shows that jobs and the economy are the top issues of the day, and Republican calls for voters to “send a message” to President Barack Obama clearly have worked far better than Democratic charges that Turner and his party want to eliminate Medicare and Social Security.

Israel is also a very visible issue, and popular former New York Mayor Ed Koch (D) has endorsed Turner because of the former mayor’s unhappiness with Obama’s level of support for Israel.

Orthodox Jews, who constitute a substantial chunk of the district’s electorate, seem particularly resistant to supporting Weprin, who is an observant Jew, against Turner, who is not Jewish but who never misses an opportunity to reiterate his support for Israel and raise doubts about Obama’s support for that country.

Whether the president’s political problems in the district stem primarily from the economy or the perception among observant Jews that he isn’t suitably supportive of Israel is a matter for some debate, but it really doesn’t matter to Weprin right now.

With Democrats not rallying behind their party’s nominee as quickly and enthusiastically as they normally do, the DCCC and an outside Democratic group, House Majority PAC, together are spending about $600,000 on independent expenditure campaigns to elect Weprin, even though the district will likely be eliminated in redistricting.

Democrats argue that losing this seat would force them to eliminate a different Democratic seat when the Legislature draws new lines later this year or next in addition to making the redrawn 13th district (Staten Island/Brooklyn) more Republican.

“This isn’t about one seat. It’s about two or three. The party’s $500,000 investment is insurance for the delegation, not for Weprin,” one Democratic insider insisted.
Democrats also want to avoid the public relations disaster that losing a reliably Democratic district would entail. The loss would play into the Republicans’ narrative about the president’s unpopularity, giving GOP talkers ammunition to argue that 2012 will be a nightmare for Democrats and that Medicare will not be the disaster for Republicans that Democratic strategists hope it will be.

The question is whether spending $600,000 on the race can change the contest’s outcome and whether it is the best use of those resources for Democrats.

In many districts, a half-million dollars of TV would be a significant investment that could well move voters (for example, in northern Nevada, where a massive investment by Republicans is expected to pay off in a special election victory today), but in the New York City media market, it doesn’t necessarily have that much effect.

National Democrats easily could have thrown Weprin under the bus, blaming him ­— or him and Obama — for the loss, saving money that could be used next year.

I’m not saying a loss would be without consequences for Democrats. It could affect fundraising and candidate recruitment.

But even if Weprin wins narrowly, nobody with a grain of common sense would see that victory as proof that Obama is not a drag on downballot Democratic candidates. Nor will astute observers believe the outcome means that Democratic candidates around the country will be able to use Medicare to trump jobs in next year’s campaigns.

DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), who represents parts of Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties, surely feels pressure not to lose a New York City district, as does Crowley, an ambitious Democrat who has a reputation as a savvy strategist and surely would be embarrassed by a Turner victory.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the DCCC’s predicament now in New York’s 9th district. Weprin and Obama are near the top of the list, but one person ranks above them.

“Anthony Weiner deserves the blame. Without his actions, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” one savvy Democrat fumed.

That’s exactly how Republicans felt about former Rep. Chris Lee (R) right after they lost his upstate New York district in a May special election.