Turner, who had run for the seat before and lost decisively, won a convincing victory Tuesday, 53 percent to 47 percent, in the special election made necessary by the resignation of scandal-tainted Democrat Anthony Weiner from the U.S. House of Representatives. That Turner's opponent was former New York State Assemblyman Dave Weprin in a district that is roughly 40 percent Jewish should set off alarm bells in Washington—especially in the White House—about the president's prospects for re-election.
Turner campaigned on the need for voters to "send a message" to President Obama, something that seemed to resonate well in this very working class, heavily Jewish and ethnic Catholic district which, in a way, is a microcosm of the electoral coalition that has worked well for the Democrats since the days of Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If that coalition is at risk of defecting to the GOP—or even just fracturing into pieces—then the party's troubles are just beginning.
A lot has been said about the so-called "Reagan Democrats" over the years but, now, they are largely Republicans. The defections to Turner from Democratic ranks seen in Tuesday's election came from voter blocs that, while they may have supported Reagan nationally never jumped the fence on state or local races.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wassermann Schultz's observation that the seat is one of the least Democratic in all of New York City—thus explaining away the loss as coming in a tough district—rings hollow. The district and its antecedents have been held by the Democrats since the early 1920s. Its loss is an embarrassment to the party and to the president.
The race turned on three issues. First, there is the matter of Obama's performance generally. With unemployment still north of 9 percent and the economy lagging, his competence as president is being called into question.
Second, there is the issue of what many voters in the district perceived as his lagging support for Israel, America's staunchest ally in the Middle East. According to one post-election survey, Orthodox Jewish voters, who make up a sizeable portion of NY-9's voting population, voted for Turner—and against Obama—by 8 to 1.
Third is Welprin's role in making gay marriage the law of the land in New York State. In a district laden with religious voters—both Orthodox Jews and traditional Catholics—the Democratic candidate's support for socially liberal notions cost him significantly. The issue is still a loser at the polls for those who support it.
Special elections are not necessarily good predictors of the outcome of national contests. The GOP has been on a losing streak over the last few years in specials—a streak it broke Tuesday—but that did not prevent the party from making substantial gains in the 2010 elections, winning back control of the U.S. House of Representatives, a record number of state legislative seats, numerous governorships, and getting close to parity in the U.S. Senate. Nevertheless, if we extrapolate the trends from NY-9 onto the national electorate, it is clear that Barack Obama is in for a tough time of it next year.