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Republican Bob Turner has been declared the winner by the Associated Press in the New York 9th district special election. With 82% of precincts reporting, the latest returns show Turner with 53% of the vote and Democrat David Weprin with 46%. Weprin leads narrowly, 51%-48%, in Queens, where 90% of the precincts have reported; Turner leads 69%-31% in Brooklyn, where 66% of the precincts have reported. Thus if the remaining precincts in each borough match existing percentages there, Turner will win by a slightly larger margin than in current returns. This is a big reversal from the 2008 general election, when the 9th district voted 55%-44% for Barack Obama over John McCain.
This is a peculiarly shaped district, with the Brooklyn and Queens portions connected by little more than a strip of shoreline and several island in Jamaica Bay. Many have written that the district has not been carried by a Republican since 1920. This needs a little qualification. The Brooklyn portion of the district is the descendant of districts held by Democrats Emanuel Celler (who won from 1922 to 1970), Elizabeth Holtzman (winner from 1972, when she upset Celler in the primary, to 1978), Charles Schumer (winner from 1980 to 1996) and Anthony Weiner (winner from 1998 to 2010). Celler’s districts tended to run in a narrow corridor from Crown Heights and Brownsville, full of non-affluent Jewish immigrants from the 1910s to the early 1960s) down along Flatbush Boulevard and/or Ocean Parkway to Jamaica Bay. Now the district includes only part of that area. Essentially it includes heavily white (or Asian) neighborhoods not included in the black-majority 10th and 11th districts.
“This vote is a startling repudiation of those policies by just the voters Schumer was hoping to win over.” – Michael Barone
To maintain the population standard, these mostly white portions of Brooklyn have been tied by redistricters to mostly white portions of Queens, including Forest Hills, the home base of Geraldine Ferraro when she was elected from 1978 to 1982, and neighborhoods running east to St. John’s University. These parts of Queens have, I believe, been parts of districts that have elected Republicans as recently as the 1960s (when liberal Republican Seymour Halpern represented much of Queens).
There are growing Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the district, especially in Brooklyn, and Turner seems to have carried Orthodox Jews by a wide margin over Weprin who is an Orthodox Jew himself. Primary reason, it appears: to protest Barack Obama’s policies and actions toward Israel. As others have pointed out, these relatively middle-scale (as opposed to upscale or downscale) Outer Borough Jews are not typical of affluent Jews in Manhattan or high-income suburbs, and so there is limited precedental value here for other districts. Nevertheless, it is also notable that Weprin ran no better than even among other voters in the district. For nearly two decades it has been taken for granted that white residents or metro New York are heavily Democratic. Not so the white residents of the 9th congressional district today. They just issued what amounts to an emphatic thumbs down on the policies of the Obama Democrats.
This result is a rebuke to Barack Obama, but it is a rebuke as well—a stinging one, perhaps more stinging—to Senator Charles Schumer. He represented much of this district for 18 years and the now disgraced Anthony Weiner was his staffer and pretty obviously Schumer’s chosen successor as congressman when he ran successfully for the Senate in 1998. In addition, Schumer has made it his special project to win back white middle class voters in places like metro New York for the Democratic party. In January 2007, just in time for the new Democratic majority in Congress, he published a book, Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time. It is a thoughtful essay on how Democrats can win the votes of the kind of voter Schumer himself has won over in his career as a congressman and senator, with specific policy recommendations as well as public relations advice. As one of the three Democratic leaders of the Democratic majority in the Senate—and by common consent the one who outshines in intellect the other two put together—Schumer has played an important role in fashioning Democratic policies, including but not limited to the 2009 stimulus package and Obamacare.
This vote is a startling repudiation of those policies by just the voters Schumer was hoping to win over. I write this without any rancor for Chuck Schumer. I admire his intellect, I admire his capacity for hard work and while I think he often acts to gain partisan advantage I think it must also be said that he tries to achieve good public policy results. He has risen from a modest background (he is a graduate of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, the alma mater also of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Senator Norm Coleman: a pretty impressive record for a non-selective high school serving a non-affluent neighborhood) and has not gotten where he is because of personal wealth (he has none) or overpowering personal charm. He will surely continue to serve as senator as long as he wants (since direct election of senators came in, no incumbent Democratic senator from New York has been defeated for reelection). But his hopes of forging a Democratic governing majority based on successful public policies took a severe beating in this special election.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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