Mosques and Planes and New York's 9th

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 9 2011 9:55 AM

Mosques and Planes and New York's 9th

The new Siena poll in New York's 9th district has Republican Bob Turner up 6 points on Democrat David Weprin. Not surprising -- Barack Obama's approval rating is 43 percent in the poll, against a 54 percent disapproval rating. So if they lose Democrats are going to struggle to explain how the election was a fluke, and not evidence that Barack Obama's new jobs push is doomed. It won't be like the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, which enabled Republicans to filibuster bills, but it's one less vote, and one unwelcome talking point just five days after his Big Speech. To what extent do local Dems blame Weprin? To what extent do they blame Obama? It'll be a happy mess for Republicans.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

There's a rhythm to many campaigns. The rhythm can be set naturally, or it can be set by smart strategists. If you're running an underdog campaign, you want the rhythm to go like this.

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1) The scrappy underdog -- who is he? Sympathetic stories try to answer the question.

2) The underdog is gaining ground -- why?

3) The frontrunner's stumbling all over the place. Now he's attacking -- but wasn't he supposed to win? How'd such a hopeless schlub get nominated?

4) The underdog, buoyed by good press, wins, as the frontrunner heads into the Michael Dukakis National Museum of Screw-Ups.

This was the rhythm of the Massachusetts special election. Scott Brown was an interesting, talented candidate, who was getting closer than expected because voters were angrier about the national economic situation and the Affordable Care Act than Democrats were comfortable admitting. After the race, Republicans said their polls showed him down to Martha Coakley by single digits, before she made any mistakes. And then they took advantage of some Coakley mistakes -- which were impressive! -- and helped make the final stretch of the race all about Brown's charm and Coakley's fumbles. I was in the state in the final stretch of that election, and the sense of things on radio and TV was that Brown was a rock star, and Coakley was hopeless.

This brings us to New York's 9th district, which Democrat David Weprin looks totally capable of losing to Republican Bob Turner. It's a weird race, because the district, although heavily Democratic, has been trending Republican -- Gore won 67 percent of the vote there, and Obama won 55 percent. There's a large and influential Jewish community here, which has given us the sideshow of Ed Koch endorsing Turner (to "send a message" to Obama over Israel) and some orthodox Jewish leaders bucking Weprin because he backed same sex marriage. Point is, we're deep into the part of the campaign where every Weprin move is looked at for awkwardness and stumbles, and every Turner move is looked at for cleverness.

The latest example: The DCCC pulled the trigger on an ad showing a plane zooming around Manhattan, to make the point that Turner is a rich jerk who likes tax loopholes. The ad-makers are guilty of laziness -- who's being swayed by the "private jets" line, really? -- and some bad taste, because who sees that image on the weekend of 9/11 and doesn't think of 9/11?

So they quickly fixed the ad, leaving it up to snarky political reporters (Hi!) to point out the flub. One fact gets lost: Turner actually used 9/11 imagery in an ad, scorching Weprin over the "ground zero mosque." He just did it early, so instead of coming off as desparate, he came off as a savvy user of wedge issues.

If Weprin goes down, the main reasons will be the unpopularity of the president and the weakness of his own campaign. It's just fascinating to watch these meltdowns repeat the same patterns, upset after upset.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.