WASHINGTON — Savoring the unlikeliest of victories, Republicans called their triumph in a New York City congressional race a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s policies on the economy and Israel on Wednesday as public and private polls showed his approval ratings plummeting in a district he carried handily in 2008.
“We’re not going to sugarcoat it, it was a tough loss,” conceded the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Yet party officials and the White House insisted the race was not a referendum on the president as he seeks re-election with the economy stagnant and unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent.
In New York, Rep.-elect Bob Turner outpolled state Assemblyman David Weprin in a light-turnout election. He will replace former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned in disgrace earlier this year in a sexting scandal. Represented by Democrats since the 1920s, the district includes portions of Brooklyn and Queens, is home to three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans and is nearly 40 percent Jewish.
Those district demographics customarily spell victory for a Democrat, but in a smattering of interviews on the day after the election, former Obama supporters gave voice to their changed feelings.
“Unfortunately the Democrats have let us down lately,” said Anne Lenihan, 65, of Queens, who said she supported the president in 2008. “I’m disappointed in the Democrats and we need change.”
Mark Russell, 37, a Democrat, said he didn’t vote because he could not get excited about supporting Weprin, despite numerous calls from the Democratic get-out-the-vote operation.
“In 2008 I voted for Obama, and I made a big mistake then,” said Kelly Redmond, 47, who cited the economy and the president’s policy toward Israel as reasons for supporting Turner.
Concerns that surfaced in the race included an administration policy in the Mideast that some Jews find not sufficiently supportive of Israel.
Obama’s urging of Israel to halt housing settlements in the West Bank has been a point of controversy in the district. Also, Weprin drew criticism for his vote in the New York Assembly in favor of a measure legalizing gay marriage, legislation generally unpopular with Orthodox Jews.
Among political leaders in both parties, reaction to the results fell along lines that are well-established for a special election in which a House seat changes hands from one party to the other. The winning side almost always claims a broad national significance, while the losers point instead to local concerns. In fact, that happened most recently elsewhere in New York, when Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul won a seat in May that had been in Republican hands for years.
Speaker John Boehner issued a statement saying “New Yorkers have delivered a strong warning to the Democrats who control the levers of power in our federal government. It’s time to scrap the failed ‘stimulus’ agenda and the misguided policies on Israel and focus on getting America back to creating jobs again.”
“An unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide in a 2012 election that is a referendum on his economic policies,’ contended Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, head of the National Republican National Congressional Committee.
“We do not view it that way,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney, who told a reporter he risked looking foolish if he tried to predict the outcome of the 2012 elections based on the New York race.
Noting GOP claims about the effect of the economy on the outcome, the Democrats’ House campaign committee said in a memo that the Republicans had not run the campaign based on Obama’s economic policies. “For example, Tea Party Republican Bob Turner played on New Yorkers’ fear and anxiety around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks,” the memo said. “Turner’s TV ads and mailers included images of the Twin Towers burning and the so-called Ground Zero mosque.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, likewise said the race had been run under “unusual circumstances,” and she asserted the public mood will change “when we begin to focus on jobs rather than spending cuts.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who represented the district when he was in the House, said he had “never heard (the seat) referred to as a bellwether.” He added that the 55 percent of the vote Obama captured there in 2008 was his worst showing in any part of New York City. Obama won 53 percent of the vote nationwide.
Public and private polling during the New York campaign suggested Obama’s standing in the district has deteriorated among voters who chose him in 2008. In a survey released less than a week ago, Sienna put his approval rating at 43 percent among likely voters and 29 percent among independents.
Private surveys have him in the low-to-mid 30s, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The same polls indicate the economy and jobs are the top issues among voters in the New York district, as other surveys say is true elsewhere in the country.
For all the struggle in the New York race, the district itself may disappear.
The state loses two seats in the House as a result of the 2010 Census, and each party is expected to give up one.
When Weiner quit, Democrats signaled they were prepared to fold the district into another one even if Weprin had won.
Republicans now face a similar decision, knowing that Turner could have a difficult re-election in a district that may be redrawn to make it more favorable to Democrats.