With less than a week to go until the special election to fill former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s seat in Congress, Republican candidate Bob Turner is poised to pull a shocking upset. According to a new Siena College Research Institute poll, Turner leads his Democratic opponent, Assemblyman David Weprin, by a 50 percent to 44 percent margin. Conventional wisdom had Weprin scoring an easy victory in New York’s heavily Democratic 9th district — which covers parts of southern Brooklyn and south central Queens, and has been represented by a Democrat since 1923 — but a combination of anti-Washington sentiment and campaign missteps by Weprin have left Turner in position to capture the seat.
Weprin has been haunted by an interview with the New York Daily News in which he incorrectly claimed that the national debt was only $4 trillion — about $10 trillion off from the correct figure. Turner has used the gaffe to tap into voters’ fears about the country’s economic future, and he has been able to cast Weprin as hopelessly out of touch on economic issues.
Weprin committed another costly error the next day when he dropped out of a planned debate with Turner, citing logistical issues as a result of Hurricane Irene. The storm had already passed however, making it appear that Weprin was just trying to dodge his opponent and questions about his debt gaffe.
One unavoidable problem for Weprin has been President Obama’s falling approval ratings. With the president’s approval ratings hitting an all-time low in recent days, Weprin has been hurt, not helped, by having a Democrat in the White House. Although there is still time for him to recover and squeak out a win, things are looking bleak.
Interestingly, the last special election for a New York congressional seat was the inverse of this race; Democrat Kathy Hochul was able to upset her Republican opponent, Jane Corwin, in the deeply conservative 26th district. In that race, it was the Republican who was tied to a Washington controversy; many pundits claim that Corwin was defeated as a result of voters fearing the threat of Congressional Republicans dismantling Medicare. Unlike Weprin, Corwin was helped by President Obama, whose approval ratings had shot back above 50 percent in the wake of his order to send Marines into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden shortly before the special election.
There is one major takeaway from the two special elections: Voters are extraordinarily angry at both parties. Corwin lost her election by being tied too closely to the congressional Medicare debate, and Weprin is in danger of losing his election by being tied too closely to the congressional argument on debt. Overall it appears that incumbents should tread very carefully in upcoming elections; until Congress improves its job performance, Washington ties will continue to be a serious liability.