NEW YORK – The race to succeed former Rep. Anthony Weiner in New York's 9th congressional district was never supposed to be close. No Republican has ever been elected to the House in the largely Democratic stronghold that covers parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
But the weak national economy, disenchantment with President Barack Obama, and New York-centric clashes over Israel and gay marriage have made the contest surprisingly competitive. Democrats now are scrambling to defend the seat.
It came open in June after Weiner, a 7-term Democrat and feisty champion of liberal causes, resigned in a sexting scandal. Party leaders selected 55-year old David Weprin, a state assemblyman from a prominent Queens political family, as their candidate to succeed Weiner. Republicans chose Bob Turner, 70, a retired media executive who drew 40 percent against Weiner in 2010, even as party operatives signaled they did not see a path to victory for Turner this time and didn't intend to invest resources in the race.
But a Siena Poll released Friday found Turner leading Weprin, 50-44 percent. Hoping to stave off an embarrassing loss, national Democrats have purchased nearly $500,000 in television advertising and labor unions and other Democratic-affiliated groups are readying a major get out the vote effort they hope might save their candidate.
Weprin has had some well-publicized stumbles throughout the campaign, such as skipping a debate organized by a prominent neighborhood association and blaming his absence on Hurricane Irene, even though the storm had passed New York at that point.
But his biggest challenge has been distancing himself from Obama, whose economic policies have angered many voters across the largely white, working class district. Obama carried the district in 2008 by a margin of 55-44 percent over Republican John McCain but lost the Brooklyn portion by a sizable margin.
"I'm not running to be President Obama's senior adviser, I'm running to be a member of Congress from the 9th congressional district," Weprin said in an interview. "There's a lot of good things I like about the president, and things I like less and disagree with."
Turner, who has never held public office, has made few concrete policy proposals but says he wants to bring "business practicality" to Washington. He favors cutting the federal budget by 35 percent and reducing taxes and regulation, which he says have stifled job growth.
In an interview, Turner compared the race to Republican Scott Brown's upset win in a special election to replace the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts last year.
"If this blue district turns Republican, the entire Democratic Party will have to say, 'We are not on the same wave length as the people. Let's change course,' " Turner said. "That could have a profound impact on politics in this country."
Weprin still has a large cash advantage over Turner, and has received checks from party officials including Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the party's congressional committee. Sen. Chuck Schumer has campaigned with Weprin and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has opened her campaign office for volunteers to make get out the vote calls.
Weprin got an important boost this week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and the state's most popular elected official, signaled he would help the campaign in its closing days.
Cuomo, a Queens native, rejected the notion that the race would be a referendum on the president.
"There are two names on the ballot and neither is Obama," Cuomo told reporters this week, predicting a Weprin win.
Turner has gotten support from GOP leaders including House Speaker John Boehner and prominent local Republicans including former New York Gov. George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor lionized for his performance in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The 10th anniversary of the attacks is Sunday, two days before voters go to the polls.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump has even gotten involved, recording get out the vote calls for Turner.
In New York's last special election in May, Democrat Kathy Hochul captured a heavily Republican upstate district by casting herself as a protector of Medicare, the popular health care plan for seniors. Republicans had recently passed a budget proposal that included deep cuts to the program. Weprin has adopted Hochul's approach, suggesting Turner would try to dismantle Medicare and Social Security if elected. Turner has said he believes both programs are financially unsustainable and need reform.
But at a recent campaign visit to a Rockaway Beach senior center, Weprin's enthusiastic defense of entitlement programs wasn't enough for Louis Pucilla, a retired Marine angry at Obama for backing the 2008 bank bailout initiated by Republican President George W. Bush.
"I'm very mad. The rich are getting richer and we get nothing. Obama doesn't care about working people," Pucilla, a Republican, said.
The district has a large concentration of Orthodox Jewish voters who tend to be conservative, especially on social issues. Weprin is an Orthodox Jew and Turner is Catholic. But many Orthodox voters were angry at Weprin for his vote in the Assembly in favor of legalizing gay marriage. In July, New York became one of just six states to allow gay marriage.
Weprin has also been forced to defend his level of support for Israel, ever since Ed Koch, a former New York City mayor and a Democrat, announced in July he would back Turner as a way to "send a message" to Obama on the administration's policies toward the Jewish state.
Obama has pressed Israel to cease housing settlements on the West Bank. He's also said negotiations over an independent Palestinian state should be based on 1967 borders and adjusted by possible land swaps — a position that has been rooted in past diplomacy but never explicitly embraced by a U.S. president.
Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, said the tight race showed that New York is not immune to voter anger over national leadership and concern over the country's future.
"It is a general hostility toward federal government that's become conventional wisdom. And it's even present in New York," White said, adding, "A victory here would be a tremendous message of momentum for Republicans going into the election year."
The turbulence in the 9th district this year has led some observers to suggest it may be ripe for elimination, since New York is due to lose two of its 29 districts next year based on the results of the 2010 Census. But there has been little movement so far in the redistricting process, which is headed by state lawmakers and not due to be complete until next spring.