A lot of Democrats are mad at Barack Obama.
But voters in New York in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s old New York City district can actually do something about it today – sending a shot from Queens Boulevard to the White House by rejecting the Democratic Party’s hand-picked successor.
If Bob Turner pulls off the upset in this deeply Democratic district that the polls are predicting, the local political pros will say Democratic David Weprin ran a dysfunctional campaign while Republican Bob Turner turned his opponent’s strengths into weaknesses – including using the political establishment backing that made Weprin the nominee to demonstrate his own independence by contrast. But the only name in the race that matters outside the five boroughs is Obama, and an upset would be seen as proof that Obama’s agenda has been rejected and his re-election chances are weaker than ever.
What to watch for as the results come in:
How much will Obama drag down the Democrat?
In an overwhelmingly Democratic district, Turner can’t rely on Republican votes alone. He’ll need support from Democrats discontented with the national party’s agenda and Obama’s leadership.
Turner, who’s sought to paint himself as an independent-minded Republican, has focused largely on Obama’s policies – including his stance toward Israel, which has angered the district’s sizable population of Orthodox Jewish voters.
To win, Turner aides estimate they’ll need around 30 percent of Democratic voters to break their way. That means that in addition to securing socially conservative voters in areas like Kings County, they’ll need to make inroads in traditional Democratic strongholds like Forest Hills and among typically Democratic-voting Orthodox Jews, Russians and Asian-Americans.
It’s not an impossible task. Siena Research Institute’s most recent poll found Turner picking up the support of 32 percent of Democrats.
“We need Democrats to vote for us, and we’re getting that in the Siena poll,” said John McLaughlin, a longtime New York-based pollster who is working for Turner.
During a press conference with Turner on Monday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’s backing the Republican candidate, reminded reporters that he had won the congressional district during both of his runs for mayor.
If Democrats don’t vote for Turner, Republicans hope that there will be a large proportion of Democrats who are so dissatisfied with the national party that they skip the race altogether.
Can the Democratic machine be enough?
There’s no denying that Weprin has run a less-than-impressive campaign. He’s misstated the size of the federal deficit. He’s awkwardly hedged on his support for Obama. At one point, his campaign confusingly sent a costumed wizard to mock Turner outside one of his fundraisers.
But all of that might not matter on Tuesday, when the powerful Queens County Democratic Party machine – overseen by Rep. Joe Crowley – is planning to kick into high gear. By the time polls open, Weprin’s campaign estimates it will have contacted more than 200,000 voters. On Tuesday, an estimated 1,000 volunteers and get-out-the-vote workers will be knocking on doors, handing out literature outside subway stations and bus stops and offering senior citizens rides to the polls.
The machine will benefit from the helping hand of the Working Families Party, a labor-backed organization regarded for its professional turnout efforts. Few expect the Queens County Republican Party – for years consumed by internal fighting – to be able to seriously compete.
“We’re going to win on the ground, we’re going to beat them on the ground,” New York City Councilman Mark Weprin, the candidate’s brother, told POLITICO. “It will make a huge difference.”
Bill O’Reilly, a Turner strategist and veteran of New York City campaigns, conceded that Republicans can’t match the Democratic ground game. “Not a chance,” he said.
Both sides agree that in a low-turnout special election race, a sophisticated operation can make all the difference.
New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a Weprin endorser, told reporters outside of Weprin’s Forest Hills campaign headquarters on Monday that polls showing Turner ahead couldn’t measure the strength of the Democratic ground effort. He added that Turner’s unanticipated rise had only further intensified the operation in the final days.
“You can’t ignore the polls and you can’t ignore that it’s close, but the reason I’m not worried in the final analysis is because I don’t think any poll counts accurately for turnout, I really don’t.”
How die-hard are the Democratic die-hards?
Weprin is counting on the support of the district’s longtime Democrats – the same voters who provided Weiner with a considerable margin over Turner last year.
Democrats expect Weprin to push hard in parts of Queens like Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, areas that have traditionally backed Democrats. To capture those voters’ support, Weprin has spent the final days of the race highlighting the backing of well-known Democrats like former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Crowley.
Even if Brooklyn and Queens Democrats are discontent and considering casting ballots for Turner, there’s hope in Democratic ranks that they’ll step back from the ledge by the time they head into the voting booth.
But if those Democratic die-hards don’t break strongly for Weprin, Turner’s night will start improving quickly.
How much will Israel matter?
Turner has launched a vigorous effort to undercut Weprin on Israel, calling him an ally of Obama – whose frosty relations with Israel are well known. Door hangers that Turner’s campaign will distribute Tuesday declare that the Republican candidate will “protect Israel” and urges voters to “send Obama a message.”
But it’s unclear just how much Jewish support Turner can win. Jewish voters – who make up about one-third of the district’s voters – have typically backed Democrats, including in last year’s race between Weiner and Turner.
Turner has knocked Weprin into the defensive over Israel. On the stump, Weprin and his surrogates repeatedly point out that he’s visited Israel eight times and that he has family members who have lived there.
Turner aides know they probably won’t win the Jewish vote outright. But eating into a significant portion of those voters will be a win for the Republican.
How strong a victory will Republicans be able to claim?
Even if Turner falls short, Republicans could still claim a win.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has aggressively highlighted Turner’s success, and senior party officials say they are anxious – and ready – to declare the race evidence that Democrats are imperiled on their own turf.
That the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had to spend $500,000 to defend Weprin, Republicans say, is a very bad sign for Democrats in 2012.
Republicans are already tipping their hand. In a fundraising letter to donors last week, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) wrote that Turner was threatening to flip “a deep blue Democrat seat in the heart of New York City.”
Even if Weprin wins by less than five percent, look for the GOP to come out swinging.
For Democrats, there’s little opportunity to play the expectations game. The party doesn’t have the opportunity to bill itself as underdogs – as it did in a upstate New York special election earlier this year – and its difficult for them to explain why they shouldn’t win.