September 14, 2011

It was in 1923 that the Democrats last captured the New York 9th Congressional District. They've held on to it ever since.

One would think that the Massachusetts Senate seat held since 1962 by Edward Kennedy (and his brother John before him since 1952) was too sacred to ever change hands (much less parties). But Scott Brown broke the Kennedy/Democratic lock there with his special election victory there in January, 2010. That election saw the citizens of that Commonwealth saying: "Slow the Obama train down."

The New York 9th House election is saying more. It says simply ""Stop Obama!" It may also be uttering prophecy!

“Bob Turner for Congress” yard signs dotted the lawns of the quaint homes lining Rockaway Beach Boulevard. This augurs well for the upstart Republican on the verge of a major upset in this heavily Democratic district, and it represents an unsettling omen for national Democrats.

An ethnically mixed beach neighborhood in the Congressional District — a district that includes portions of Brooklyn and Queens — Belle Harbor is an unlikely stronghold for a Republican candidate battling State Assemblyman David Weprin, the Orthodox Jewish Democratic candidate. Yet sure enough, this Irish, Italian, and Jewish enclave, along with the rest of the district, has ended up in GOP hands.

A middle-aged Orthodox Jewish resident named Vivian told a reporter that “Everyone here is voting for Turner." Vivian is, like hundreds of other voters, a lifelong Democrat. By “everyone,” Vivian explains, she means not only the Jewish community, which is alarmed by President Obama’s unfriendly approach to Israel, but her gentile neighbors as well in this traditionally Democratic terrain.

And here lies the rub for the embattled Weprin and for the White House, which has gone to bat for him: Over and above Israel-related issues, a loss in New York’s Ninth would spell deep electoral trouble on economic issues among so-called “ethnic whites,” which could cost President Obama and fellow Democrats dearly in 2012.

Most of the coverage thus far has focused on two issues: Israel, and Weprin’s campaign fumbles. And indeed, the Jewish state has played a significant role in the campaign, with Jewish voters in the district deeply concerned by Obama’s insistence that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must begin on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, which are widely considered indefensible, and by the president’s frosty relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Turner adopted a strong stance on Israel, defying Weprin to break with the White House on the issue. And, indeed, in the first of several miscues, Weprin haltingly criticized Obama, first suggesting that he wouldn’t endorse him for reelection, then walking back the suggestion. Several dissatisfied Jewish New York Democrats have broken with their party’s standard-bearer in the Ninth. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch announced his support for Turner, as did State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jewish Democratic colleague of Weprin’s.

The campaign between Weprin and Turner began shortly after the resignation of disgraced Democratic representative Anthony Weiner. The seat, which once belong to such notables as NY Senator Chuck Schumer and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, is one which was thought to be "forever in Democratic hands."

Sniffing potential victory, the Republican Jewish Coalition joined the fray in mid-August, mailing flyers to 30,000 Jewish residents in the district. One of its flyers highlighted Koch’s July comment in the New York Post that “if Jewish New Yorkers and others who support Israel were to turn away from the Democratic Party and elect the Republican 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.”

Weprin further hurt himself with a controversial television ad. Designed to highlight Turner’s supposed opposition to closing tax loopholes for corporate jets, the ad clumsily depicted an airplane flying low over New York City’s skyline. Needless to say, the ad didn’t go over well when it was aired two days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, especially in Belle Harbor, which lost around a hundred residents in the towers. The TV spot was, apparently, simply a thoughtless mistake, but nonetheless a costly one. In an explosion of Yiddish-inflected outrage at the ad, the popular Hikind fumed: “What are they? Crazy? Are they out of their freaking minds? Is this sick? This is a disgrace. This is chutzpah.”

Jewish residents here also expressed irritation at the relentless Weprin phone calls and door knocks that persisted into the Sabbath (because most of these are Democratic households, Turner’s own get-out-the-vote effort was far less intrusive).

But for all the focus on Israel and Weprin’s errors, other factors are also playing key roles. Indeed, a Siena poll released Friday revealed that only about one in ten Turner supporters cite his stance on Israel as their reason for favoring him. As the New York Times observed, the survey revealed that the election “had become a chance for voters to register their unhappiness with the national economic and political climate”; 54 percent of respondents view Obama unfavorably.

In fact, according to the Siena poll, an eye-popping 45 percent of Jewish voters support Turner, while 51 percent favor Weprin. But Turner outpolls Weprin among both union and non-union voters; all income groups; Catholics (62 percent to 33 percent); and independents (65 percent). Turner even draws 32 percent of Democrats.

The Catholic number is especially surprising, and emblematic of a serious problem with the Democratic brand among ethnic whites. In this district, “Catholic” is a proxy for Irish and Italian, and Turner’s own mainly Irish neighborhood, Breezy Point — along with nearby Broad Channel (Irish) and Howard Beach (Italian), all of which brim with pro-Turner signs and activity — resembles the Belle Harbor scene I stumbled into this weekend: well-kept houses, picket fences, American flags, and barbecues. Such areas are rapidly becoming no-go zones for the White House, and not only in New York City’s outer boroughs.

In fact, Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, have struggled mightily with this demographic in many parts of the country. Part of this breakdown is undoubtedly cultural, especially among working-class whites alienated by the president’s elite status, wealth, and, yes, racial-ethnic background.

But far more of it springs from a deep-seated (and well-justified) belief that Obama’s policies have abjectly failed to lift the nation out of recession — and from the hope against hope that maybe, just maybe, fiscally conservative and pro-growth policies will get the country moving again. As Janna Korsunsky, a Forest Hills resident, told the Post, “The Russian community is only for Bob Turner because he is about business.”

Barack Obama labored hard to persuade white ethnic voters to support him during the 2008 primary and general campaigns, and he wound up securing enough such votes to win bellwether Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Yet repeat victories in any of those states in 2012 are becoming increasingly difficult for the White House to count on.

It may not be the time just yet to sing "bye Bye Barack," but this election may be about the pending death of a President's Administration, probably best summed up with the words of John Doone's poem:

Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

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