David Weprin should have been a shoo-in to replace Anthony Weiner. New York’s 9th Congressional District, which straddles two Jewish enclaves in Central Queens and Southeastern Brooklyn, was gerrymandered for Jewish, Democratic victories. Weprin looked to be a triple threat: a Democrat, an Orthodox Jew, and a veteran New York politician. He’s a state Assemblyman, his father was the Assembly speaker, and his brother is a New York City Councilman. All of that matters in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 and where at least one-third of voters are Jewish. The last time a Republican won there was 1920.
But Tuesday night, voters decisively handed the seat to Bob Turner, an Irish Catholic Republican, by a margin of 54-46. At 71, Turner is a retired cable-television executive previously most famous for creating The Jerry Springer Show. His previous political experience was to serve as the GOP’s sacrificial lamb against Weiner in 2010. But Turner defeated the Jewish Democrat because voters believed he was the pro-Israel candidate.
Yes, yes, there were other issues. Though Weprin keeps kosher, attends synagogue daily, and boasts of his countless relatives who live in the Jewish State, he had voted in favor of same-sex marriage, which didn’t sit well among Orthodox Jewish voters. That same constituency might have forgiven support of gay marriage from a more secular Jew like Weiner, but they couldn’t abide someone who they perceived as selling out the faith. The barrage of robocalls to voters from various Orthodox leaders on the matter couldn’t have helped. Nor did endorsements of Turner mixed into Talmud-study groups. Of course, the continuing economic malaise and high unemployment made matters worse. And Weprin wasn’t a strong campaigner. But the issue on voters’ minds was Israel.
Ben’s Best Kosher Deli in Rego Park is located on an otherwise typical Queens Boulevard strip of Bukharian Jewish restaurants and pornography stores. The customers I spoke to at the Queens landmark during lunchtime on Election Day had all voted for Anthony Weiner in the past, but this election was different, they explained over corned beef, kreplach, and kishka. Fran Alper, an older woman eating lunch with her husband, told me she was voting for Turner “because Obama is against Israel.” Another geriatric Jewish couple, Carol and Larry Samuels, were even more savagely against Obama’s Israel policy. They were appalled not just that the president wants to return Israel to its 1967 borders, they said, but that the president “refused to take a photo with Benjamin Netanyahu.” (The first part is not quite true—Obama said this summer that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should be based upon the 1967 borders, with land swaps—and the second part refers to Netanyahu’s Washington visit in March 2010, which did not include the traditional joint photo op.) Carol said she wanted to physically shake fellow Jews who still voted for Democrats—even as she admitted that she’d previously voted for Weiner and Spitzer.
Up until the last minute, the Weprin campaign tried to win over such voters. At a senior center in the Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills at noon on Election Day, State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, campaigning for the Democrat, offered the weak line that if they wanted to send Obama a message on Israel, they should call the White House. Andrew Hevesi, a Democratic Assemblyman from Queens, tried to turn the elderly crowd against Turner by describing him as a “scary, scary man.” He, along with a full array of Jewish elected officials from the borough, claimed Turner wanted to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and abolish the Department of Education. This parade of horribles culminated when Weprin himself claimed that Turner even wanted to abolish the Department of Agriculture. Never mind that there are no farms, let alone forests, in Forest Hills.
Still, this approach proved effective among senior citizens I spoke to who fondly remembered FDR and relied on their Social Security checks. Others who weren’t motivated by fear of Turner’s “radical Republicanism,” in the words of one voter, explained that they were faithful Democrats who wanted to support the party despite a lackluster candidate. One loyal voter in Forest Hills bragged about voting for Adlai Stevenson from Korea in 1952 and told the volunteer at his door that “he wasn’t voting for Weprin, he was voting for the Democrats.”
The question, of course, is what this Republican victory portends for the president in 2012. The Obama camp was quick to dismiss the results of the special election as, well, special. In a statement, Rep. Steve Israel, the Long Islander who serves as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted that “special elections are always difficult—they are low turnout, high intensity races” and said he was confident that “the results in NY-09 are not reflective of what will happen in November 2012.”
Others see Turner’s victory as the beginning of the end of the New Deal Coalition: the marriage between Jews and the Democratic Party consummated by Roosevelt 80 years ago. Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf believes Weprin’s defeat signals a major realignment of the Jewish vote. There’s a “new Jewish vote that is observant and communally based,” Sheinkopf told me Monday. Secular liberal Jews are intermarrying and thus, he argues, losing their connection with Israel. Those that remain in the community are more observant and behave politically more like Catholics, Democratic-leaning swing voters, than reliable Democrats as Jews traditionally have been.
Prominent Turner endorser and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch wasn’t looking for a realignment of the Jewish vote, just the opportunity for Jews to make a statement that the “Democratic Party and President Obama [shouldn’t] take Jews for granted.” No single person determined this election more than Koch, who prominently endorsed Turner in July and then served as a crucial surrogate among seniors to refute Democratic charges that Turner wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare. Koch thought a Weprin defeat would force Obama to reassess his views and policies toward Israel.
“The president thinks that Jews just were compensated with Israel to make up for the Holocaust, and Obama doesn’t appreciate that it’s the historic home of the Jewish people going back to Abraham,” Koch told me. But more than appreciating Israel’s historical importance, to Koch, the obstacle to peace is the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas and Fatah don’t want to negotiate, Israel shouldn’t have to negotiate with them. All Obama needs to do is recognize this fact and Koch would return to the Democratic fold, he said.
Unlike Koch, Turner does not seem to have given much thought to U.S. policy in the Middle East. When I interviewed him Tuesday at his campaign headquarters, the Republican thought that the message Jewish voters were sending was merely that Obama should be friendlier toward Israel. Turner fumbled when I asked about specific policy measures that the administration should take to show this friendliness. Finally, he settled on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an issue that Koch dismissed as “not a big deal.” Yet, Turner continued to play up Israel as an issue on election night, putting an Israeli flag along with the American flag on stage at his campaign event. But it was clear that his advocacy for the Jewish State was not a political opportunity that he found, but a political opportunity that found him.
David Weprin was not a good candidate. He’s a nebbish-ey mustachioed man with a limp handshake and what appears to be a toupee. After his nonconcession speech last night at a bar in Queens, crowded less because of the press of supporters than because of its cramped size, he was quickly hustled out, lest he have to interact with the media, let alone supporters.
But his failings as a retail politician weren’t what did him in. When the Orthodox Jew loses an election because he can’t attract the pro-Israel vote, something else is going on. It may be a vast shift, or more likely the type of quirk that puts the special in special elections. Either way, for the next year, the Zionist congressman from the Jewish district in Queens will be a devout Catholic from the Rockaways.
CORRECTION, Sept. 20: This article originally dismissed the allegation that Obama refused to take a photo with Netanyahu as “an urban legend with about the same veracity as allegations of the president’s Kenyan citizenship.” While the two men have been photographed together on several occasions, at least one visit by Netanyahu to Washington pointedly did not include any joint photo opportunities. This error has been corrected.