New York election a referendum on Obama, GOP says

Republican Bob Turner speaks with the media at a polling station on September 13, 2011, in New York City. Getty Images

Bob Turner
Republican Bob Turner speaks with the media at a polling station on September 13, 2011, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Updated at 12:35 p.m. ET

Republican Bob Turner's upset victory Tuesday in the special election for the heavily-Democratic congressional seat in New York's ninth district is a referendum on President Obama's economic policies and his relations with Isreal, GOP leaders are saying.

"We have been told this is a referendum," the former cable television executive said after defeating Democratic State Assemblyman David Weprin for the seat vacated by disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner. "And we're ready to say, 'Mr. President, we are on the wrong track.'"

On paper, the district looked like a shoo-in for Democrats: Mr. Obama's party holds a three-to-one registration advantage in the heavily-Jewish district, and Democrats have represented the district for more than eight decades. Mr. Obama won the district by 11 points in 2008. But a poll released just days ahead of the election showed that voters in the district are displeased with the current direction of the country.

House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Tuesday night that New York voters "delivered a strong warning to the Democrats who control the levers of power in our federal government. It's time to scrap the failed 'stimulus' agenda and the misguided policies on Israel and focus on getting America back to creating jobs again."

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In its first reaction to the Democratic loss, CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer reports, the Obama re-election campaign dismissed the 2012 implications. When it comes to gauging Mr. Obama's re-election prospects, a campaign official said, "The main point is to take a look at... the president's national standing in battleground states."

The official noted New York's 9th district was Mr. Obama's second-worst New York City district in the '08 election. "There are a high proportion of voters in this district who voted for Bush and McCain - so this is not a new trend it is a continuation of a trend," the official said.

The campaign is also downplaying any notion that the results indicate Jews are turning against the president. "President Obama performs extremely well among Jewish voters overall," they said.

The White House has not commented on Tuesday's special election, but on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney disputed the notion that the race would be a referendum on the president's Israel policies by pointing to a statement from the prime minister of Israel, who said Mr. Obama has shown a historic level of assistance and cooperation toward the Middle Eastern country.

Nevertheless, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions also said in a statement that the race demonstrates that "voters are losing confidence in a president whose policies assault job-creators and affront Israel."

Sessions added that Mr. Obama is "now a liability for Democrats nationwide."

While Weprin, the Democrat in the race, is an Orthodox Jew, Turner (a Catholic) managed to put him on defense on Jewish issues. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, for instance, said this summer he was endorsing Turner as a way to "send a message" to Mr. Obama on his policies toward Israel. Weprin was challenged on his support of the Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a statement that "without question, Obama's policies are causing significant numbers of Jewish voters to re-examine their loyalty to the Democratic Party."

Meanwhile, National Jewish Democratic Council president David Harris said, "This election was about many things --but not Israel." He pointed to polling that suggested voters weren't voting on that issue, and he said both candidates supported a strong U.S. relationship with Israel.

Other Democrats, like the president's campaign, downplayed the race.

"This is a special election that is purely reflective of who showed up to the polls and the makeup of the district," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told the Washington Post.

In a conference call later, Wasserman Schultz said the Democrats' prospects for 2012 -- including Mr. Obama's -- remain strong. The president's head-to-head numbers against Republicans have held up both nationally and in key states, she said.

"While Republicans are spending the year courting the Tea Party... the president's out there fighting every day to create jobs," Wasserman Schultz said.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who represented New York's 9th for 18 years, said the district has never been a bellweather.

"It's among the most conservative districts in New York City, and it's changing rapidly over the years," he said. "Anybody who tries to extrapolate [national implications from] what happened in this district... is making a big mistake."

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said in a statement that special elections are always difficult. "The results in NY-09 are not reflective of what will happen in November 2012 when Democratic challengers run against Republican incumbents who voted to end Medicare and cut Social Security while protecting tax loopholes for big corporations and the ultra wealthy," he said.

While Democrats are now downplaying the implications of special elections, earlier this year they said their special election victory in a conservative upstate New York district was a referendum on Republicans' Medicare proposals. Robert Costa of the conservative magazine the National Review points out that Turner didn't back the GOP's controversial Medicare proposal, so he avoided the "Medi-scare" that occurred in the upstate race.

Though the race is over, the future of New York's 9th district remains to be seen: as a result of the 2010 census, New York is losing two congressional seats, and New York's 9th, which covers parts of Brooklyn and Queens, may be at risk of elimination. That means Turner may quickly be out of a job.

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