Catholic and Jewish Voters Send a Message

Establishment Democrats went into a state of shock last week when the special election in New York’s 9th Congressional District, to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Anthony Wiener, went Republican for the first time in ninety years.  Catholic and Orthodox Jewish voters, disenchanted with President Obama’s economic and Israel policies and angry over Democrat candidate DavidWeprin’s support of New York’s same-sex marriage law, banded together to elect retired television executive Bob Turner with 54 percent of the vote.

The 9th C.D., where I lived for fourteen years, has had a fascinating history.  From the 1920s, when New York Governor Al Smith was the hero of urban Americans, until the late 1970s, the district had been populated with Irish, Italian, and German Catholic-Democrats who were socially conservative, supportive of New Deal programs, and critical of the Great Society.

By end of the 1960s, a cultural revolt was brewing in the 9th. Reacting to President Johnson’s expanded welfare programs, questions about Vietnam, rising crime rates, and racial unrest in New York City, the district’s blue-collar Catholic voters became disenchanted with the Democratic Party. They supported the fledging New York Conservative Party’s 1965 candidate for mayor, William F. Buckley Jr., and later voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 

In 1970, the 9th C.D.’s 15-term Democratic Congressman, Jim Delaney, dean of the New York delegation and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, read the handwriting on the wall and endorsed James Buckley, the Conservative Party candidate for U.S. Senator. Buckley, who won statewide in a three-way race with 39 percent of the vote, carried the 9th C.D. with 60 percent.

After Delaney retired in 1978, the seat was held by Geraldine Ferraro – who portrayed herself as a neighborhood Catholic while voting the pro-abortion line in Congress – and then pro-life Democrat Thomas Manton. 

In 1990, to dilute the ballot-box power of the conservative-leaning constituents, the district’s lines were redrawn to include a part of Brooklyn heavily populated with Jewish Democrats. Congressman, Charles Schumer easily carried the district four times averaging 80 percent of the vote. 

Anthony Wiener, a loudmouth, obnoxious super-liberal, inherited the 9th C.D. after Schumer moved up to the U.S. Senate in 1999.  Wiener handily won his first five terms, garnering 93 percent of the vote in 2008.

Turner wins! Obama loses.

Wiener, however, faced his first real challenge in the fall of 2010 when the sixty-nine-year old Republican-Conservative Bob Turner entered the race. Turner, a pro-life Catholic, father of five and grandfather of fourteen, who lived in the district his entire life and made his fortune as the CEO of an entertainment company (that produced some dubious programs such as The Jerry Springer Show) ran an aggressive race.  Eyebrows were raised on election night when he received a relatively solid 41 percent of the vote.

When Weiner resigned his Congressional seat in June 2011 after his sexually scandalous Twitter exploits became public, Democrats, assuming the special election would be a slam-dunk, nominated a candidate who did not live in the district, the lackluster Queens Assemblyman David Weprin.

Because Obama had received only 55 percent of the district’s vote in 2008 (Clinton 1996 – 67 percent, Gore 2000 – 67 percent, Kerry 2004 – 56 percent) and with polls indicating his popularity plummeting, Republican and Conservative leaders sensed an upset was possible and convinced Turner to make another run.

The campaign strategy was simple: concentrate Turner’s resources on turning out socially conservative Catholic and Jewish voters. Two prominent Jewish Democrats helped cement the coalition.  Former Mayor Ed Koch urged his co-religionists to punish Obama for his anti-Israel stance by voting for Turner.  And another prominent Jew, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikindm endorsed Turner because Weprin had voted in the state legislature for the same-sex marriage bill.

The National Democratic Party’s infusion of $600,000, serious money for such a race, couldn’t stop the Turner juggernaut. Turner carried the old-line Catholic neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Glendale, Middle Village, Breezy Point, Rockaway Peninsula, Marine Park, and Gerritsen Beach. A majority of Hasidic, Orthodox, Sephardic, and Russian Jews in Manhattan Beach, Midwood, Flatbush, and Brighton Beach supported Turner. Democrat Weprin won only the very liberal Jewish neighborhoods – Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Fresh Meadows.

To protect President Obama, Democratic spokesmen hit the airwaves blaming the loss on their lousy candidate. A Siena College poll released a day before the election, however, tells the real story:  64 percent of Catholics and 54 percent of Jews in the 9th C.D. have a poor view of Obama. His job approval rating, which is 40 percent nationally, stood at 31 percent there.

Democrats have plenty to worry about because the 9th C.D. election proved, once again, that in closely contested races older practicing Catholics who care about social issues, especially abortion and gay “marriage” – and their allies in rust-belt states – still matter, and can provide the margin of victory, even nationally. If like-minded Catholics in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana – states Obama carried by narrow margins in 2008 – come out in similar force in 2012 they make the difference in whether Barack Obama lives in the White House for four more years . . . or returns to Chicago.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.