Throughout the Democrats' recent electoral woes, one bright spot has remained. The party has been pretty good at winning special elections for seats in the House of Representatives, including those in GOP-leaning districts. But is their luck turning sour? Tuesday's special election in the New York 9th District, most recently held by ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned earlier this year following a Twitter scandal, may be close. Many polls showing the GOP candidate leading, even though the district has long leaned Democratic.
If the Republicans do pick up the seat, it could signal that despite Democrats' efforts to change the national conversation, public confidence in President Obama is continuing to pull the party down.
Obama won the district with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, but today 56 percent of its voters disapprove of his performance, according to a poll released over the weekend from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm. The same poll shows Republican Bob Turner leading New York State Assemblyman David Welprin by 47 percent to 41 percent, with a 3.8 percent margin of error, in the race to replace Weiner. "The mood is very much against the incumbents, and Democrats in particular are paying the price for that in this district," says Michael Krasner, a professor of politics at Queens College.
The 9th District, which includes parts of Queens and Brooklyn, is the type of moderate, blue-dog Democrat district which the party used to dominate the 2006 and 2008 elections. The voters are more independent or conservative than many of its New York neighbors. If Obama's name is toxic here, it could spell trouble for him across the United States in 2012.
It wasn't that long ago that Democrats were crowing about the Empire State, after a May upset victory in the 26th district in upstate New York. That election was defined by Medicare, with many voters opposing Republicans after the party voted for Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize the government run, senior citizen health insurance plan. But over the summer, the stagnant economy and the fight over the debt ceiling and have sullied the public's views of both Obama and Congress, leaving Democrats trailing suffering more because of the view that they still represent the power in Washington. Meanwhile Turner managed to distance himself from the GOP leaders and their position on Medicare, calling for reforms to the program but claiming he would have voted against Ryan's plan.. "He anticipated that attack from the Democrats, and succeeded in fending it off, Krasner says. "He's not as identified with people like Ryan and [House Speaker] John Boehner." That may be harder during a national campaign, while Democrats are doing their best to tie the Medicare vote around Republicans' necks. But, in Queens at least, public anger is favoring the GOP.
However, some political pros caution against trying to read too much into Tuesday's results, whatever they may be. There are local issues which don't easily register outside the district lines. The heavily Jewish district, with a growing number of Orthodox voters, may be disillusioned with Obama's stances on social issues and his foreign policy in regards to Israel. And, of course, this entire special election was brought about because of the scandalous online flirtations by Anthony Weiner, which may have turned off the entire district to Democrats. "There's a lot that's particular to this race," said Bill Kornblum, a sociology professor at the City University of New York. "It seems to me that a lot of the problem was the way Weiner bowed out, and the anger that many voters feel about that."
Whoever wins on Tuesday, the closeness of the race and the continued evidence of voter pessimism about Obama shows that his path to re-election and for a Democratic rebound in Congress continues to get harder.