To answer Ed Koch’s famous question, he’s doing pretty damn well these days.
With his early endorsement and vocal support, Koch has succeeded in framing what had been an inconsequential local race into a nationally watched referendum on President Obama’s Israel policy. That’s the contest between Democrat David Weprin and Koch’s
choice, Republican Bob Turner, in an off-year special election to fill Anthony Weiner’s Congressional seat.
“I see this only contested congressional race in the country as an opportunity to do what the election of Scott Brown did in Massachusetts,” Koch told me in an e-mail. “As a result of that election, Obama moderated his political philosophy on domestic issues. In fact, he folded on too many issues, e.g., the Bush tax cuts. Now, if the Jews turn their backs on him, he may see the wisdom of jettisoning his hostility to Israel.”
Koch, who has crossed party lines in the past to endorse Republicans, emerged as a prominent Jewish hawk after 9/11, backing George Bush in 2004 in response to statements then–Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean made about Israel. His decision to back Turner came just a few months after the 86-year-old former mayor announced his support of Obama in 2012, to punish Republicans who “sought to destroy essential protections for the middle class and poor of this country.” But he added in the same letter: “After two and one-half years of President Obama, my doubts on his ability to manage American foreign affairs have grown,” citing “his hostility towards Israel” among the factors that “have severely reduced my enthusiasm for a second Obama term.”
Leaving aside the merits of Obama’s Israel policies, the 9th district special election is an unlikely race to carry such a weighty load. Weprin, an Orthodox Jew and a party regular, currently holds the Assembly seat that his father Saul held for 23 years and his brother Mark then held for 15 more years. When Governor Andrew Cuomo selected him as the party’s pick to replace Weiner over higher-profile Democrats, political pros took it as a sign the district would be lost, along with a Republican district upstate, when the legislature tackles redistricting next year. With Weprin playing the good soldier, no “real” Democratic assembly member would have to lose a seat.
His opponent, Turner, a retired cable executive, picked up an unexpectedly high 40 percent of the vote in 2010 running against Weiner in the heavily Democratic district, where about a third of the voters are Orthodox Jews. Though Weprin gave generously to Jewish nonprofit groups when he was the City Council’s finance chair, many religious Jews are still fuming about his vote in the Assembly this year in favor of same-sex marriage.
While turnout in an off-year special election is notoriously hard to predict, the latest Siena poll shows that despite a three-to-one advantage for Democrats, Weprin leads by just six points—and that his voters are significantly more likely to change their vote. Even if Turner falls short, Koch has succeeded in drawing national attention to the race, and on just the terms he’s aiming for. A recent Politico story captured the thrust of the national coverage: “What should have been an open-and-shut special election for a New York City congressional seat is turning into a referendum on President Barack Obama.”
“Victory or close loss sends the message that the Jewish voters are no longer to be taken for granted,” Koch says.
While Weprin has tried to paint Turner as a Tea Party extremist too conservative for the district on health care and other issues, the Republican has continued to push on Middle East matters where a first-term Congressman would have little sway. He briefly ran, and then defended his decision to run, a much-condemned TV spot reviving last year’s controversy about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, claiming “President Obama thinks that’s a good idea. And so does Congressional candidate David Weprin.” (The spot quotes Weprin saying in 2010, “I support the right of the mosque to build,” but not his next line, when he says he’d prefer it to be built farther from Ground Zero).
A Turner win, while still a long shot, would be a national story, but the narrative of Jewish voters “turning their backs” on Obama breaks down with a closer look at the numbers. The Siena poll shows Weprin leading among Jewish voters by 21 percentage points, while Turner, who is Catholic, is up by 18 points among Catholic voters clustered in Queens, which holds about two-thirds of the district’s population. Forty-five percent of the likely voters identified economic issues as the most important single issue in their choice of Congressman, while just 5 percent went with “peace in the Middle East”—and those voters were evenly split between the two candidates. What’s more, the district was never that fond of Obama: While Gore took 67 percent of the vote there in 2000, Obama (and Kerry) took just 55 percent.
While the former three-term mayor had also played an out-front role with New York Uprising, a group pushing for nonpartisan redistricting, Koch says that campaign has nothing to do with his role in the Congressional race, which he’s said has more to do with Obama than with the candidates themselves.
“I told David Weprin when he called me to complain about my endorsement of Turner that it was not a personal rejection,” Koch said. He added that the decision had nothing to do with the Democrat’s views on Israel: “It is simply that he cannot, for obvious reasons, be a credible vehicle sending the appropriate message to President Obama.”