Late last week, as polling started to show that Republican Bob Turner would win the congressional seat left open by famed Tweeter and former Rep. Anthony Weiner, Joel Pollak arrived in New York to take it in. Just 10 months previous, Pollak ran for Congress on a Turner-ish platform, and he’d lost. New York’s 9th district was historically Democratic, with a large Jewish population; Illinois’s 9th district, where Pollak had run, was even more Democratic, with a similarly large Jewish population. Pollak piqued the interest of national conservative groups and won some endorsements from Jewish Democrats, such as Alan Dershowitz. Turner did the same.
Bob Turner just won a seat in Congress. Joel Pollak didn’t. There are plenty of ways to explain the difference, starting with the fact that Barack Obama won Illinois’s 9th by 46 points, and New York’s 9th by only 10 points. But when the New York special election was called, the smart folks who handicap elections said it was likely to fall to the Democrats. What happened?
“What is different in New York,” Pollak told me yesterday, “is that Obama's approval ratings are underwater, and even Democrats are sounding the alarm about his lack of leadership. No one believes his assurances on jobs anymore. Democrats used to say: ‘Well, Obama's not great on Israel, but I will still vote for the Democrat for other reasons.’ In NY-9, they're now saying: ‘Obama's not great on Israel, and the Democrats aren't good on other issues either, and I want them to start listening to me instead of drifting further left.’”
Obviously, Israel wasn’t the only issue at play in New York. Democrats got routed in a simultaneous special election in Nevada, in a district that had split 49-49 between Obama and McCain. The New York loss wasn’t a fluke. It was a test of two wedge issues meant to pry two kinds of voters away from the Democrats. One of these issues was of recent vintage. One was new and untried. Both of them were effective because, in the third year of an economic recession, these voters’ patience for Barack Obama had run out. Their antibodies weakened, leaving them totally vulnerable to new attacks.
The first wedge issue, getting a little less attention on Tuesday, was gay marriage. Earlier this year, Assemblyman David Weprin voted for the successful bill that legalized same-sex unions in New York. He explained his vote by explaining the tenets of his Orthodox Jewish faith. “I think everyone here would agree that we should not be outlawing marriages between Jews and non-Jews or interracial marriages,” he said.
That was dangerous. At least 40 Orthodox rabbis in the district signed a letter pronouncing it “forbidden according to Torah law” to vote for Weprin; this in a district where perhaps one-third of ballots would be cost by Jews, many of them Orthodox. The National Organization for Marriage, which had failed to stop the gay marriage bill, trained its death ray on Weprin, organizing direct mail and robocalls to spread the rabbis’ message, and targeting the district’s Hispanic voters – about 15 percent of the population – with a robocall from conservative State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr.
Gay marriage is hardly a new wedge issue; plenty of candidates are able to overcome their votes for it. The Siena Poll that first showed Weprin losing the race had voters approving of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the gay marriage law, by a 3-1 margin. This is where the “Israel issue” came in. The argument went like this:
Barack Obama has disrespected Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu by talking about a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. That was the reason Ed Koch gave for backing Turner in June, and the reason Assembyman Dov Hivkind gave in August.
Barack Obama supported the “Ground Zero Mosque.” That was the none-too-subtle message of a Turner TV ad and a later Republican direct mail piece.
If we don’t wound Democrats on this, they won’t change. That was the undercurrent of all the attacks.
This line of attack was mostly new to New York’s 9th. What was entirely new was the sacrifice of an Orthodox Jewish politician, who had criticized Obama in the same terms Koch had, in order to elect a Christian Republican whose pre-election biography would have led with how he helped created The Jerry Springer Show.
The Emergency Committee for Israel was one of the groups that dug into the district, running an ad that showed both Weprin and Turner attacking the “ground zero mosque” – seemingly evenhanded, but a reminder of an issue that only helped the GOP. Why punish Weprin? Why put the word out to Democrats that as long as they supported Obama in some way, they were on notice, even if they had the right Israel stance?
“Democrats don't have a choice,” explained ECI’s Noah Pollak. “The only way they can blunt this attack is by getting out front against Obama's position on Israel. I think we're going to see a lot more Democrats distancing themselves from Obama after this. Look, Weprin’s record on Israel is admirable, but it’s important to encourage candidates to pursue this line of attack.”
Weprin responded as best he could to the Israel attack. Yes, fine, “the best David Weprin could do” is faint praise. Still: Seeing what was being done to him, he rolled out endorsements from the likes of Joe Lieberman, who denounced this idea that the election was a referendum. It didn’t work.
“They can spin all they want,” said the Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf yesterday. “This is about the fact that a good portion of the district doesn't trust president on the economy, doesn’t trust him on the state of Israel. You put it together you have a toxic cocktail. Now, you tell me: If you can’t win Jewish voters here, you can’t win ethnic Catholic voters here, how do you win them in Missouri? How do you win them in Florida?”
Actually, this disastrous election gave the Democrats a few hints. The party tried, and failed, to wound Turner by telling voters he’d provide one more Republican vote to weaken entitlements. That worked in New York’s 26th district, where Democrat Kathy Hochul tore pages out of the Ryan plan and made her Republican opponent eat them. In the 9th, Turner and his surrogates tried to neutralize the entitlement issue by promising not to cut entitlements. In two robocalls, Koch promised voters that Turner wouldn’t cut Medicare or Social Security. The weekend before the election, Hikind said the same thing, and bolstered his case by saying Democrats were risking the programs.
“The president of the United States is now a member of the Tea Party!” said Hikind. “He said, in his own words, that there won’t be Medicare and Social Security for my children and your children and my grandchildren unless we address Medicare!”
That’s not really a wedge issue – it’s the slow death of a wedge issue. It’s the start of a problem for Democrats, who have gone from attacking the Ryan plans for entitlement reform to vouching support for some undefined “everything on the table” entitlement reform. There might not be any way for Democrats to dodge this, and there's no sign that they want to. And that leaves all of them in the position of Democrats in New York's 9th. Their traditional base, weary of the recession, not sure what Democrats have to offer any more, are ready to be wedged.
"This message will resound for a full year," said Turner in his victory speech. "It will resound into 2012."