Democrats are facing the very real possibility that a pair of special elections on Tuesday will shake the foundations of the 2012 political landscape. The party is at serious risk of losing a House race in New York City that few thought would be close, and campaign officials are already close to writing off a Nevada House race they had once hoped to contest.
If Republicans win both contests, it would raise fresh concerns about President Obama’s drag on down-ballot Democrats and the party’s ability to keep its Senate majority. The losses would also raise questions about whether the party can gain the 24 seats it needs to regain the House.
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In the last week, the race for former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s seat has given Democrats the biggest headache. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee late last week poured in $500,000 in a last-gasp attempt to hang onto a seat that has been in Democratic hands for decades. Before Weiner represented the Queens- and Brooklyn-based district, it was the home turf of now-Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Democrats chose New York Assemblyman David Weprin as their nominee, and, for much of the campaign, spent little time on the race. They believed it would remain firmly in Democratic hands and that Weprin would be a placeholder for a seat likely to be eliminated in redistricting anyway.
“The Democrats will look like dummies and the DCCC will get a black eye” if Weprin loses, said New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “It’s a precursor to more trouble in conservative Democratic districts throughout the country, and in the Senate and for the president.”
The Republican nominee, businessman Bob Turner, also has taken advantage of several district-specific issues, according to Democratic operatives familiar with the race. He cast the contest as a referendum on Obama’s Israel policies, and scored a significant endorsement from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
Koch’s backing has been a major factor among the district’s sizable Jewish population, nearly half of whom said in a recently released Siena poll that they were endorsing Turner. This support comes despite the fact that Weprin is an Orthodox Jew who has touted his pro-Israel bona fides on the trail.
Even Weprin has sought to distance himself from Obama, telling the Jewish Weekly that he would “probably” back him for reelection.
Discontent with Washington and the president is at the heart of Turner’s shocking upset bid. In a district he won by 11 points just three years ago, Obama’s favorability rating is now upside down in the Siena poll, with 54 percent having an unfavorable opinion of Obama and only 43 percent viewing him favorably. A remarkable 38 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents hold an unfavorable view of the president.
Republicans are eager to link Obama to the district race. “It really will be a referendum on President Obama’s performance,” said New York GOP Chairman Edward Cox. “This will be a rejection of his policies that have stifled the district. Maybe [Democrats] can save this situation by funneling in hundreds of thousands of money in vicious ads—maybe that will work in this Democratic district. But they are already embarrassed by the fact that they’ve had to do this in this district.”
In the Silver State, the situation isn’t as ominous, but Democrats have all but written off contesting a Republican-leaning seat in rural Nevada that once seemed squarely in play weeks ago. The Democratic nominee is state Treasurer Kate Marshall, and Democrats had touted her as a leading recruit. She got off to a fast fundraising start, and hammered the Republican nominee, Mark Amodei, for supporting entitlement cuts.
Republicans anticipated this contest being tight, and the National Republican Congressional Committee and the outside group American Crossroads spent significant sums of money to bolster Amodei early.
Amodei also was ready to play defense, using an ad with his mother to deflect the Medicare attacks against him. He noted that Marshall supported Obama’s health care overhaul law, which contained Medicare cuts as well. The National Republican Congressional Committee also pumped in more than $600,000 to pummel Marshall with that line of attack, but the DCCC never came to her rescue.
Early voting in the district, along with few national Democratic reinforcements for Marshall, strongly suggests that Amodei is going to win comfortably. The race’s results also have worrisome implications for Democrats in the state’s closely watched Senate race between Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley and Republican Sen. Dean Heller—close to a must-win race if Democrats entertain hopes of keeping their four-seat Senate majority.
This article appears in the September 12, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.