The White House is girding for a political loss in the heart of New York on Tuesday. They’re also spinning up an explanation that won’t entirely result in the blame landing on the low popularity of the president. As in Massachusetts, where Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley was faulted by the White House and many others for tone-deaf campaigning, Democratic candidate Dave Weprin may see the undercarriage of that new White House campaign bus.
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Democratic officials and President Obama’s advisers expect Weprin to lose the election to upstart Republican Bob Turner in the contest to fill the 9th District seat vacated by Democrat Anthony Weiner.
Obama won the district, which spans southern Brooklyn and Queens, by 11 percentage points in 2008. His approval rating there is now 33 percent.
(RELATED: On Election Day, Accusations Flying in NY-09)
The president’s top political aides concede that if his numbers had been “sturdier,” it might have had a slightly positive effect for Weprin. That means no Obama-voiced robocalls to most Democrats in the district—just text messages targeted at younger voters. More-popular Democrats, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Bill Clinton, are lending their voices to the get-out-the-vote effort.
Democratic strategists studying the district say Turner’s strength comes from independents and traditionally Democratic voters in Orthodox Jewish communities, a demographic displaying an enormous amount of interest in voting.
The district has very moderate-to-conservative pockets. Weiner, who resigned after a sexting scandal, did a very good job of appealing to the concerns of the Archie Bunker part of the district while also speaking to the younger transplants. That took a lot of skill and a careful cultivation of Jewish community leaders.
Weprin is an Orthodox Jew and for years represented that constituency in the state Assembly. But his vote in favor of gay marriage last spring drew significant protest. He’s been down among Orthodox Jews by a 2-1 margin since entering the race.
In contrast, secular Democrats in the district, including secular Jews, display the sort of apathy associated with a demoralized political party. Weprin has been hemorrhaging support from all traditional Democratic constituencies.
The Republican Jewish Committee and independent Democratic allies like former New York Mayor Ed Koch have called the race a referendum on President Obama’s policies in general, and specifically his orientation toward Israel. They say a Turner victory would send a message that they don’t want to be the president’s rubber stamp. But Congress, controlled by Republicans, is no more popular in the district than Obama. And when polled, conservative Jews don’t list Israel among their top concerns. But of all voters who do say Israel is at the forefront of their minds, a mega-majority supports Turner.
Still, Obama always has had trouble with Orthodox Jews, and two Obama advisers said they understand that at least some of the frustration may be exercised in the form of a vote against the Democratic candidate. They concede that the election might bring to the fore how difficult it will be for Obama to win back the trust of independents—no matter what their faith. This New York contest would seem to have implications beyond Brooklyn and Queens.
Polling lurched in Turner’s direction late August when Weprin, in an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, underestimated the size of the national debt by $10 trillion, suggesting he was ignorant about the main issue of the day. Then he dropped out of a debate, citing a hurricane that had already passed through the district.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the margin by which President Obama won New York's 9th District in 2008. He won by 11 percentage points.
This article appears in the Sep. 13, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.