Just 14 months ago, a special election in New York’s 9th Congressional District gave a crucial reading of the Obama Administration’s political health. In a solidly blue district that hadn’t elected Republican representation since 1920—one that the president had carried by 11 points less than three years earlier—voters chose Republican Bob Turner, a retired businessman and political novice, over Democrat David Weprin, an Orthodox Jewish assemblyman in a heavily Jewish district.
Weprin famously lost because Turner—helped by an endorsement from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch—successfully seized on the chance to run against Weprin by running against Obama. This Turner ad summed up the Republican’s campaign: “Obama thinks he can fix the economy on a bus, he already threw Israel under it. It’s time to put on the brakes and send a clear message to Washington. Vote Bob Turner for Congress this Tuesday September 13.”
Today, as Americans go to the polls, one of the questions is whether or not Obama has sufficiently repaired his standing among hawkish Democrats for whom Israel is a litmus test issue—the kind that went for Turner in 2011. Perhaps no one represents that constituency better than Ed Koch, who last week endorsed President Obama, opining at length about the president’s improved record on Israel’s security. In a conversation yesterday afternoon, Hizzoner took credit for “persuading” Obama to adopt what Koch saw as a friendlier posture toward the Jewish state. “In the third debate that was the first question [moderator] Bob Schieffer asked,” Koch told me. “Schieffer asked ‘Do you consider an attack on Israel an attack on the United States?’ And the president and Romney both in their language conveyed that they would. … And so, I think I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.”
While Koch has notoriously shunted domestic issues in favor of candidates with muscular foreign-policy approaches—Koch backed Bush in 2004, and made President Jimmy Carter’s political life a living hell on the way to his historic drubbing by Ronald Reagan—he said his support for Obama’s reelection is a bigger-picture endorsement.
“Israel is a major issue, but the other issues are major too, which are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, abortion. From my point of view you have to be good on domestic issues as well as on foreign issues to get my support. The president has my support because he’s good on both.”
But did pro-Israel voters in heavily Jewish areas like Forest Hills, Queens, get the message? At a polling station at P.S. 101, where some voters stood for over an hour to cast their ballots, fortifying themselves on pumpkin bread and zucchini muffins being hawked by the students, the results were unclear.
“I voted for Ronald Reagan in this gymnasium in 1980. That was a party!” said Joey Gmerek, who manages rock bands and was born and raised in Forest Hills. “But I’m not switching horses midstream.”
“I supported Romney,” said Carol Lipkin, a 64-year-old retiree. “And people are afraid to say they supported Romney because of race. But Jewish voters are aware of racial issues. We’re voting against the debt. Israel isn’t the issue.”
“The polls aren’t telling the truth,” added her companion, who did not want to be named. “Nobody knows what’s going to happened. We’ve got to fix the economy and help out friends. That’s why I voted Romney.”
At a coffee shop on Austin Road nearby, Paul Berger, a technology consultant, disagreed.
“The Turner election was about midterm backlash. This election is about social justice. A line needs to be drawn about tax rates so that people pay what they owe. That is the issue.”
Outside of Sergey’s Barber Shop, just off of Geraldine Ferraro Way, Nathan Halpin, a pensioner in his seventies, summed it up: “Who I will vote for is my business. But Israel is my business too.”
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