Tuesday, September 13th saw two special elections to replace former members of the House. The districts could not be more different in their dynamics and their partisan leanings but the results were the same. In each case the GOP candidate coasted to victory. In a district like Nevada’s rural 2nd District this is not surprising. But to see it happen in heavily Democratic NY-9 is a massive surprise. In this piece I will give a little background on each race and try to parse out what the results signify for 2012 and beyond.
NV-2: This seat came open after Congressman Dean Heller was appointed to replace resigning Senator John Ensign. Heller was incredibly popular in the district and had represented the 95% white, rural/urban district for over a decade. There was a debate within the state about how to handle special elections. The state GOP wanted to be able to select their nominee to run while the Democratic party and state Attorney General wanted to have a free-for-all race where different candidates could run on the same partisan ticket. In the end, the state Supreme Court sided with the GOP. The GOP selected former state chairman Mark Amodei. Democrats selected State Treasurer Kate Marshall. Early on it looked like the race might be close and Marshall a fit for the district. But the rural and Republican leanings of the district soon became known for two reasons. 1) The NRCC dumped $500 grand into the race to paint Marshall as a liberal and tie her to Obama. This was incredibly effective as voters had yet to form an opinion of her. 2) When Marshall responded she attacked Amodei on an expected line. He wanted to cut Medicare and Medicaid. In an honestly brilliant move Amodei responded with an ad, featuring his mother. The ad worked and the race was never again in doubt. This district has always leaned Republican so it is not surprising Amodei won. But what is fairly surprising is how easy it was for Amodei to deflect Marshall’s attacks on Medicare and Medicaid. In NY-26 Democrats used these attacks with deadly effect winning a long-time GOP seat. Moreover, Amodei had an easy time painting Marshall as a strong Obama supporter. Voters seemed willing to accept it far to easily, even in a GOP leaning district. Special elections are notoriously difficult to predict future events on. But Amoedi’s 58%-36% victory over Marshall and the fact he painted her as a supporter of Obama early might hold lessons for GOP candidates running against Democratic incumbents in swing/Republican leaning districts in 2012.
NY-9: This seat came open after what became known as Weinergate occurred. In a nutshell, Congressman Weiner became involved in a personal scandal not even Democrats were willing to defend. He resigned soon after. This district had been held by Democrats since 1923. It takes in a significant part of Queens and the more conservative parts of Brooklyn. It was the former district of Senator Chuck Schumer and 1988 Democratic VP nominee Geraldine Ferraro. The district is a solid majority white district made up of Jews and working class whites and has a 150,000 plus Democratic registration advantage over Republicans. The district went for Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 96 and 2000 with 70% of the vote. But in 2004 it went for Kerry with only 55% of the vote and for Obama with 56%. The reason is simple. While the district is Democratic many of its voters are conservative Democrats and working class. Candidates like Gore and Clinton appeal to this set of voters. Candidates like Kerry and Obama not so much. This background information is important when one considers what happened last night. When Congressman Weiner resigned Democrats selected state assemblyman David Weprin to run as the Democratic nominee. His family had deep ties to the NY area and the Democratic machine in the district. Republicans stuck with TV executive and 2010 Congressional nominee Bill Turner. In the beginning the race looked to be a sleeper. But then a confluence of factors changed the dynamic completely. 1) Weprin lacked any strength campaigning. As this became better known his weakness at motivating Democratic voters became apparent. 2) When Weprin went for an interview with the New York Daily Post he said the national debt was $4 trillion and not $14 trillion. The NYDP eventually endorsed Turner. 3) Weprin became tied to President Obama and former Congressman Weiner simply by his partisan affiliation. Weprin was not skilled enough as a candidate to get around this issue on personal appeal and was stuck with it. This meant voter disgust with Weiner’s scandal and the crappy state of the economy was laid at Weprin’s feet. In a large way the president dragged down Weprin in this race. 4) Isabel became huge in the campaign. Weprin is a practicing Orthodox Jew, Turner a Catholic, and on several occasions Weprin tried to distance himself from Obama’s stance on Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders. But no matter what Weprin said the large and voting Jewish population in the district supported Turner (polls put the margins at about 55%-60% for Turner before election day). 5) Weprin simply did not fit the district. Despite the Democrats thought his family ties in the district would help it did nothing. In fact it could be argued it hurt him. Instead, Weprin appeared out of step with the concerns of the district and that allowed Turner to swoop in and define the campaign. 6) Finally, Weprin became a symbol of the Democratic machine. Different than being tied to Obama or Weiner, Weprin became a symbol of the status quo. Even when Weprin tried to break this belief he failed. Turner, for his part, played the role of opposition candidate beautifully. He railed against Obama, the state of the economy, the Democratic machine, and distanced himself from the GOP’s plans for Medicare. On Social Security he assured seniors it would be unchanged for them but it needed structural reform. When Weprin finally attacked him late in the race on Medicare (like Marshall did against Amodei in Nevada) it deflected right off. By then the dynamics of the race were set and Weprin could not turn it around. In the last few days of the race Democrats rushed in over $500,ooo in ad buys and unions sent in over 1,000 ground troops to canvass neighborhoods and make phone calls. But in the end the result was the same. Three days before election day a non-partisan Siena survey had Turner up 47%-41%. Public Policy Polling, a left leaning pollster, found Turner up 48%-42%. The polling was pretty spot on. With 83% of precincts reporting Turner had won the race 54%-46%. As expected, Turner racked up large margins in conservative Brooklyn and Weprin narrowly won Queens. This victory could mean nothing for 2012 or a lot. Local and national factors were at work here. Locally, voters sent a message to the Democratic and scandal plagued party enough is enough. In short, the status-quo was unacceptable. On the national side of the coin voters are tired and frustrated with the state of the economy. Conservative orthadox Jews are mad at Obama’s proposal for Israel to go back to its pre-1967 borders. Liberal policies are simply not appealing to the conservative Democrats in this district. And perhaps for 2012 that is the most worrying sign for the president. Conservative Democrats, who make up 15-25% of the Democratic coalition (depending on the survey) may be ready to break from the president in 2012. Even if these voters don’t vote Republican but simply stay home there is no way the president can win reelection or even a few key swing states. That is perhaps the most ominous sign for the president and Democrats.
Conclusion: Reading too much into the special election results for NV-2 and NY-9 is all to easy. Democrats crowed over their special election victories in NY-20 and NY-23 in 09 only to get crushed in 2010. Democrats lauded their victory in NY-26 a few months ago as a game-changer and that entitlement reform favored them. Now the GOP is likely to do the same. Both districts had unique local and national factors at play that shaped the contests. In NV-2, the district was already Republican leaning and as soon as Marshall (D) was tied to Obama Republicans and Independents came out in force against her. Her attacks on Amodei on entitlement reform rang hollow and were too late. In urban NY-9, a district with a large conservative Democratic and Jewish population local and national issues loomed large. But far more than NV-2, candidate quality played a large part in the race. Weprin was a horrible candidate and could not connect with people. The scandal plagued Democratic machine in the district was tarnished. And national issues such as the state of the economy, jobs, and the president’s stance on Israel loomed large. Even Weprin’s Jewish faith could not dent Jewish voter’s views of the race. The partisan make-up of the district (+150,000 Democratic registration advantage) really seemed to matter little. And for the first time since 1923 a Republican represents this district. Democrats, despite the factors that led to their loss in NY-9 and blowout in NV-2, should be incredibly worried. If given the chance it is perhaps possible conservative Democrats will vent against the president in 2012, either staying home or voting for a Republican. Attacks on GOP candidates on entitlement reform may start to be ringing hollow with the economy and jobs still a major focus of voters. And the way Republicans and independents mobilized against Marshall and Weprin in both races after they were tied to Obama should be disconcerting. In 2010, a large enthusiasm gap existed between Independents, Republicans and Democrats. In districts that were swing or Republican leaning Democrats were largely defeated for this reason. And that was with Obama not on the ticket. In 2012, if NV-2 and NY-9 represent the start of a national trend than Democrats down-ballot from the president should be worried. For those few Democrats representing swing or GOP leaning districts (such as in North Carolina and Georgia) this could be the beginning of the end. And lastly, the GOP’s victory in NY-9 shows that working class whites are fleeing the Democratic party. In 2010 the GOP won this voting bloc by 30% and whites overall by 20%. Without these voters Democrats will not be able to win future presidential elections or many congressional districts across the nation. NV-2 and NY-9 may or may not represent the start of a trend for 2012 and beyond but one thing is clear. The White House should take notice. And it should be worried.