NY9: It Wasn’t About Marriage, But Marriage Was an Issue



Despite decades of Democratic control in the district, David Weprin lost a special congressional election in New York that hinged on the economy and dissatisfaction with national politics. The shocking result means that voters will continue to hear about same-sex marriage, even if evidence suggests the issue played no significant role in the race.

After all, it wasn’t supposed to look like this. When ex-congressman Anthony Weiner was forced to resign in June over a sexting scandal, the special election to replace him in September was predicted to be a sleepy affair, handily won by the Democrat in a district covering Brooklyn and Queens, where the party holds a three-to-one registration advantage. Prior occupants of the seat include U.S. senator Charles Schumer and the late Geraldine Ferraro.

As the summer wore on, however, and the popularity of President Obama continued to decline, the race in New York’s ninth congressional district tightened and caught fire as a referendum on a laundry list of issues — the economy, national leadership and policy toward Israel. Still smarting from their loss in the state legislature in June, marriage equality opponents sensed an opportunity late in the game, and the National Organization for Marriage injected $75,000 into the race. NOM aligned itself with a small but vocal contingent of Orthodox Jewish leaders and Ruben Díaz, the avowedly antigay state senator, to send mailings and robo-calls aimed at defeating Weprin, who voted for the marriage equality bill in the state Assembly.

Republican Bob Turner defeated Weprin Tuesday, with the retired cable television executive receiving 53% of the vote compared to Weprin's 47% with 70% of precincts reporting by midnight. The upset appears likely to raise questions about the potential for marriage equality support to pose a political liability and also about the willingness of opponents to press the issue even when polling shows a majority of voters preoccupied with other concerns. While some answers remain in flux just hours after the election, the initial analysis suggests that discussions about marriage equality will persist, so long as opponents have anything to do with it.

“They have a microphone and a good loudspeaker and they will claim that they had an impact,” said Ken Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College, about the contribution of marriage equality opponents. “Absent any systemic exit polling, I think there will be no hard evidence to support that claim. It just flies in the face of everything we know about voting to think that views on marriage equality would trump votes on the issue of the economy when there is a high level of unemployment.”

Ask any analyst, and they will say the special election turned on the economy, opinions about President Obama, and to a lesser extent, U.S. policy toward Israel (a theme stirred when former New York City mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat for marriage equality, endorsed Turner in July to warn Obama to be a better friend to America’s closest ally in the Middle East). One week before the election, a Siena Research Institute poll showed Turner in the lead by six points, and 30% of voters listed the economy as their primary concern, followed by federal entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare at 28%, with Israel at a distant 7%.

Israel garnered attention in the ninth congressional district because of the large population of Jewish voters. Weprin’s vote on marriage equality emerged as a concern among some Orthodox Jewish leaders, where Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn assemblyman, also crossed party lines to endorse Turner, taking offense that Weprin explained his vote for the marriage equality bill with reference to his religion. But observers caution against monolithic views of Jewish opinion in the district.

“It’s not a Hasidic community,” said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant. “It’s Modern Orthodox, maybe opposed to marriage equality in name, but it’s not their biggest motivating factor as it may be in the Hasidic community. However, there are some socially conservative voters in the district, including Catholics.”

According to Skurnik, approximately 30% of the voters in the district identify as Jewish, but that number includes secular and nonobservant Jews. While it may be difficult to parse the spectrum of Jewish voters on marriage equality, the issue could factor into a race that’s already tight for other reasons. The Siena poll last week found that 8% of voters cited an “endorsement from a trusted source,” which could mean a rabbi or a priest, for example, as their reason for supporting a candidate.

“If it’s very close, you can make the case that marriage was important, but I think you can make it on both sides, because there are definitely pro same-sex marriage voters in the district,” he said. “In an election decided by five points or more, I don’t think same-sex marriage really matters.”

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