Conservatives and Republicans pulled out all the stops to win Anthony Weiner’s former Congressional seat in Brooklyn. The Republican National Committee sent fundraising e-mails about the election. The National Organization for Marriage cut an ad attacking Democrat David Weprin. New York’s pair of neo-conservative former mayors, Ed Koch, a DINO (Democrat in Name Only), and Rudy Giuliani, campaigned for Republican nominee Bob Turner. Turner won.
The good news for Obama and Democrats is that this race does not mean nearly as much as Republicans will claim it does. A special Congressional election garners extremely low turnout, which helps Republicans and hurts Democrats, especially Obama, as it makes the electorate older and whiter. Orthodox Jews are not representative of all Jews: most are more liberal on social issues and on Israel. Obama is not necessarily in any danger of losing New York state because of his 43 percent approval rating in NY 9. Nonetheless, the race was a curious, and potentially troubling, case.
Democrats enjoy a thirty-seven-point registration advantage in the district, and New York City is synonymous with liberal in much of the country, so this will naturally be spun as a major blow to them. The truth is a little more complicated. New York’s ninth district is a string of quasi-suburban middle-class white ethnic neighborhoods in deep Brooklyn and Queens. These neighborhoods are filled with what might be called Reagan Democrats. Although they remain registered with the Democratic Party because the Democratic primary often determines the outcome in New York City elections, they are largely swing voters—often socially conservative Orthodox Jews and Catholics—who helped put successive Republican mayors Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg in office. (Giuliani won the district three times, including his losing bid in 1989, and the district was more Democratic before the last round of redistricting). In 2008 Obama won only 55 percent of the district. Back in June, Michael Tomasky, one of the sharpest writers on New York politics, explained how Weiner’s seat could turn red.
Turner had two main prongs of attack against Weprin, a state assemblyman. One, what Brooklyn’s orthodox power broker Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind cited as his main reason for endorsing Turner was Weprin’s support for gay marriage. The other, cited by Koch, was to “send a message” to Barack Obama regarding Israel.
And this is where the story gets truly bizarre. Weprin is himself an Orthodox Jew. He has been to Israel eight times. There is no evidence whatsoever that he’d be anything less than a resolute supporter of Israel, as Weiner was before him and as every New York Democrat always has. Indeed, Turner’s Jewish supporters like Koch and Hikind never claimed otherwise.
Instead they argued that Weprin must be defeated to demonstrate to Obama that he must pay proper fealty to Bibi Netanyahu. And so conservatives and Republicans are gleefully claiming that this demonstrates the unpopularity of Obama’s position on Israel and the political risk it carries for him and his party. Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks told the Washington Post, “this race highlights the serious problems that President Obama has in the Jewish community because of his policies regarding Israel.” The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein describes the election as “a referendum on President Obama's failed leadership in general, and his hostile stance toward Israel in particular.”
But what exactly is this “hostile stance” toward Israel? Is it the fact that Obama keeps sending it billions of dollars per year in military aid, more than we give to any other country and vastly more per capita? Or is it the fact that Obama has virtually the same stance on the peace process—a two-state solution with land swaps—as President Bush did? The whole thing seems to stem from a brouhaha a few months ago, in which Obama mentioned the pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations. As Obama later clarified, he did not mean that those borders were to be set in stone, only that they would be the starting point for negotiations.
And so the fit of pique directed at Obama from right-wing Israel hawks is inexplicable on the merits, but to be expected as the usual dishonest partisan point-scoring. What is unclear is why this resonated with your average Orthodox swing voter in Brooklyn. Even harder to understand is what they think they will get out of this election. Turner and Weprin had the same views on Israel. So how does, say, Ed Koch, think Obama’s stance on Israel is going to change? Exactly what tangible policy change could Obama have made to mollify Koch and his ilk and hold the seat for his party? Turner’s Jewish supporters never said, so it’s impossible to know, and thus it was impossible for Obama to mollify them. Perhaps the only answer—hinted at in so many stories that reference the “discomfort” that older, socially conservative white Democrats have always felt towards Obama—is that he could only mollify them by being a white guy with a non-Muslim name.