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

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com September 13 2011 10:10 PM ET

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.”The fact that Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, faced opposition from his own religious community over his marriage equality vote would appear to send a chilling message to politicians concerned about holding their base. But observers seem reluctant to draw parallels between a special election in heavily Democratic New York City and the four upstate Republican senators who voted for marriage equality in June.

“I don’t think it means much,” said one Republican strategist. “These guys need to survive a Republican primary and they need to survive a general election. Their lens is to survive a Republican primary. In a Democratic primary, it shouldn’t be an issue at all. You really don’t have the same potential vulnerability.”

The outcome in the 9th congressional district breaks a losing streak for NOM, which suffered defeat in a special election in New York earlier this year. The group spent $6000 in an attempt to defeat Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who upset Republican assemblymember Jane Corwin in a special election upstate to replace ex-congressman Chris Lee, who also resigned after an online sex scandal. The race also paralleled the contest in the 9th district in less salacious ways, such as the backgrounds of the losing candidates.

“Assemblymembers are not great special election candidates, especially in a special election where people are focused on the national politics,” said the Republican strategist. “And especially when the candidate is from the state legislature, which has a terrible reputation.”

Like in New York’s 26th congressional district, neither Weprin nor Turner focused on marriage equality, and the issue failed to register in most of their public debates, including a televised match sponsored by NY1 last week that promised the largest potential audience. The candidates mainly stuck to the theme of the economy and their different interpretations on how to improve it. Meanwhile, high-profile Democrats like former President Bill Clinton and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned for Weprin, while the national Republican Party also took an interest in the race that insiders estimated would end up costing as much as $10 million.

At points, Weprin complicated matters for himself among his LGBT backers, such as when he told an early debate audience in Queens that he believed marriage should be decided on a state-by-state basis. He also expressed support for a lawsuit that challenges the state Senate procedures surrounding the marriage equality vote in an interview with a Jewish news outlet.

While inarticulate at times, marriage equality advocates still viewed him favorably from his days in the City Council, and his election presented the opportunity to demonstrate that the LGBT community stands by its allies, even if the congressional seat stands a chance of being eliminated in redistricting next year. The Human Rights Campaign, one of the organizations that led the push for marriage equality in New York, contributed $5,000 to Weprin, the maximum allowed for a federal PAC, and urged its members to canvass the district for him.

“As Bob Turner said during the campaign, 'The gay marriage issue is closed; it's New York state law,’” said Brian Ellner, senior strategist for HRC in New York. “Regardless of who won tonight, a strong majority of New Yorkers support marriage equality.”

On Tuesday morning, HRC sent a memo that argued marriage equality played no role of significance in the race. The organization noted polling, the rhetoric from the candidates, and the fact that Weiner, who held the seat for 12 years until his resignation, maintained popularity despite his vocal support for marriage equality.

“Whoever wins tonight, marriage equality did not play an influential, even modest, role in the outcome of this special election,” said the memo. “What people are focused on are jobs, jobs, and more jobs.”

NOM offered a different take in a memo it sent, saying, “Another reason why David Weprin is hurting today is because of his vote earlier this year to legalize same-sex marriage. Ethnic and racial minorities are breaking with Dems on this issue and now it may cost them a usually safe seat in Queens.”

In the end, the Democrat lost, but the upset turned on the economy and voter dissatisfaction with national politics, not marriage equality. Still, the battle to control the marriage narrative continues, especially among opponents with a record of more losses than wins.