HOWARD BEACH, N.Y. -- The victory of Republican Bob Turner in a solidly New York City congressional district represented the worst possible nightmare for Democrats. All of their ads attacking Turner as someone who would ravage Social Security and Medicare fell flat. Turner won in the most true blue of Democratic territories, an area that had last elected a GOP congressman in 1920--the year HBO's period drama Boardwalk Empire is set. It had elected such famous Democratic liberals as Geraldine Ferraro, Chuck Schumer, and, before his infamous all-thumbs texting scandal forced his resignation and prompted a special election, Anthony Weiner. And Turner himself represents the kind of voter Democrats need to keep. The son of a machinist and a homemaker, he grew up in a solidly Irish Democratic family in which he was the first member even to graduate from high school. But the entire family has rebelled against the growing cultural and economic liberalism of the Democratic Party and is now Republican.
And to rub salt in the wound, Bob Turner himself is linked to most of the bogeymen Democrats and liberals loathe most. The retired head of Multimedia Television, he was the man who approached Rush Limbaugh and convinced him to start a successful TV show in 1992. The executive producer of that program happened to be his old friend Roger Ailes, who in 1996 went on to found the Fox News Channel, the bête noire of all liberals. To add poetic justice, the name of Turner's campaign press secretary was none other than Bill O'Reilly (no relation to the Fox News host, alas).
"I can only imagine the crazy conspiracy theories they'll come up with," Kevin Turner, the candidate's brother, told me at the Turner victory celebration.
But the initial mood among Democrats that night was more like shock. Benjy Sarlin, a reporter for the liberal Talking Points Memo website, captured it best when he reported that New York City Council member Mark Weprin, the brother of Democratic congressional candidate David Weprin, couldn't get over the fact the massive union turnout machine he'd deployed had failed and that Bob Turner, a 70-year-old political neophyte, had won 54 percent to 46 percent.
"We had 1500 workers going to the polls," he told Sarlin. "What the hell is wrong with us?"
Independent polls taken just before Tuesday's vote tell the tale. The issues and Obama defeated the Democrats. True, Weprin was a hapless candidate, so gaffe-prone that the liberal New York Daily News depicted him as Inspector Clouseau in a cartoon. But even Democrats privately admitted that Weprin would have won had President Obama's approval numbers in the district topped 40 percent.
Obama's approval stood at 31 percent in the last pre-election survey taken by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Jobs were an important issue, with voters eager to express dissatisfaction with high unemployment and the failure of repeated "stimulus" programs. Significantly, the PPP poll showed Republican Turner with a six-point lead in the final week. He wound up winning by eight points after Obama's much ballyhooed "jobs" speech before Congress five days earlier. Whatever Obama was selling that night, normally Democratic voters in Brooklyn and Queens weren't buying.
Anger among Jews over Obama's policies on Israel also played a role in what is probably the most Jewish congressional district in the country. The PPP poll found 37 percent of voters thought Israel was "very important" as an issue, and they were going overwhelmingly for Turner, despite the fact that Weprin was an Orthodox Jew and Turner a Catholic. Turner received endorsements from Ed Koch, a former Democratic mayor of New York, Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and the Orthodox Jewish Press.
"This result will have a real impact on both Jewish voters and donors as they figure out who to support in 2012," says Jeff Ballabon, a media executive who is helping organize Jewish support for Governor Rick Perry of Texas. Indeed, a September poll conducted for the American Jewish Committee for the first time showed disapproval of Obama's performance among Jewish voters to be greater than approval (by 48–45 percent).
Same-sex marriage may also have played a role in the Turner victory. Democrat Weprin, a New York state assemblyman, had cast a controversial vote in favor of gay marriage earlier this year despite expressing concerns about how the vote was rammed through. The PPP poll showed voters in the 9th Congressional District opposed gay marriage by 44 to 41 percent, with especially intense opposition among both Orthodox Jews and observant Catholics. The National Organization for Marriage, a group backing traditional values, poured $75,000 into the district.
Other groups, including the Independent Women's Forum, weighed in as well. Such efforts were desperately needed by the Turner campaign, which was vastly outspent by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which bought $600,000 in last-minute TV time in a desperate bid to save the seat. By contrast, the Republican National Campaign Committee made only a token effort.
But what the Turner campaign lacked in cash it made up in enthusiastic volunteers. Roger Aguinaldo, a Filipino-American financial executive, reported that his neighborhood in Queens was festooned with Turner signs and filled with people going door-to-door for the Republican.
On the same night that Democrats lost the New York seat, they suffered an accompanying black eye in a special election for a Nevada congressional seat centered around Reno. Republican Mike Amodei won the race over a wellfunded Democrat by 22 points in a district in which John McCain tied Barack Obama less than three years ago.
Democrats need to pay attention to these twin body blows. Some worry that their president is in danger of becoming Carterized--a political condition last seen in 1980, when an incumbent president became impotent, powerless to control the forces around him, and a drag on his party's entire ticket.
Some Democrats are already wishing that President Obama--who has often said he would be willing to be a one-termer if it meant accomplishing more of his goals--would take up that thought and announce his retirement the way Lyndon Johnson did in 1968.
As for Turner, he is confident his victory will resonate nationwide. "I am the messenger," he told his cheering supporters on Election Night. "This message will last into 2012. We only hope our voices are heard [and] we can start putting things right again."
In the unlikely event that liberals heard the voices coming out of New York's special election, they might contemplate just how badly they misread their 2008 mandate and figure out how they can convince President Obama to modify his course to prevent a Democratic disaster not seen since Jimmy Carter cost his party the White House and Senate just over 30 years ago.