Democrats Suffer Defeat on Home Turf

BY Jenny Marder  September 14, 2011 at 8:34 AM EDT

Bob Turner; photo by azipaybarah via Flickr

In New York, Republican Bob Turner, above, defeated Democrat David Weprin in a House special election. Photo by azipaybarah via Flickr.

The Morning Line

Democrats went 0-2 Tuesday night in the House special elections in New York City and Nevada. The results, especially the GOP upset in New York, are sending real fears throughout the Democratic Party about what can be done to avert similar disaster at the polls next November.

There are many important caveats about over-interpreting the results of special elections. They are unique (just look at the string of Democratic victories ahead of the 2010 shellacking) and they are localized.

However, special elections are also best at reflecting the overall political environment at the moment. And unlike a poll’s snapshot, we get to see actual voting behavior.

The New York and Nevada results tell us that President Obama has an immense amount of work to do in the next 14 months to accomplish two monumental tasks: energizing Democratic-base voters and persuading independents to come back to the Democratic Party. Democrats were unable to accomplish either in Tuesday’s special House elections.

In New York, Republican businessman (and “The Jerry Springer Show” creator) Bob Turner defeated Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin, 54 percent to 46 percent, in a district that hasn’t been represented by a Republican since the 1920s. It’s the district that sent liberals like Geraldine Ferraro, Chuck Schumer and Anthony Weiner to Congress. For a Republican to win here, and to do so by 8 percent, is a strong rebuke of President Obama, his party and his policies.

The New York Times reports out the early spin coming from each side:

“National Republican leaders immediately trumpeted the victory as a sign of trouble for Mr. Obama’s re-election effort. ‘An unpopular President Obama is now a liability for Democrats nationwide,’ Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

“But Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the district’s large concentration of Orthodox Jews made it unusual and meant the race had few national ramifications.

“‘In this district, there is a large number of people who went to the polls tonight who didn’t support the president to begin with and don’t support Democrats — and it’s nothing more than that,’ she said in a telephone interview.”

Of course, that line from Rep. Wasserman Schultz begs the question about why the Republicans were more energized about getting to the polls than her party’s base voters.

The enthusiasm gap that served as a critical advantage for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections has apparently not abated.

It’s also harder for the White House and national Democrats to dismiss these elections as purely local affairs. (That, of course, is the traditional response from the losing side in a special election.)

Republicans placed President Obama at the center of their campaigns. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch endorsed Turner and urged voters in the 9th Congressional District to send a message to the president with their vote.

The district has a substantial Orthodox Jewish community whose members are very concerned about the president’s policy toward Israel in light of his recent remarks that pre-1967 borders (with land swaps) provide the path to peace in the Middle East.

In Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Mark Amodei trounced Democrat Kate Marshall by 22 percent. It’s a Republican-leaning district that has grown more competitive in recent years as Nevada has emerged as a battleground state, but Democrats had given up on this race weeks ago. The size of Amodei’s victory in a state where the Obama campaign intends to compete intensely is, however, a warning sign.

Here, too, President Obama was central to the Republican campaign messaging, including a television ad showing Marshall using the president’s words verbatim.

For as much of a beating the president will take Wednesday, he’s likely to be thankful for the fact that his name wasn’t actually on the ballot Tuesday. If it had been, he’d be out of a job.

WARREN ‘GOING TO RUN’

Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren announced Wednesday morning that she will seek the Democratic Pary’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts next year and the opportunity to challenge Republican incumbent Scott Brown.

Warren delivered the news in a web video with a populist pitch to Massachusetts voters. “Middle-class families have been chipped at, hacked at, squeezed and hammered for a generation now, and I don’t think Washington gets it,” Warren said.

“Washington is rigged for big corporations,” Warren goes on to say. “A big company, like GE, pays nothing in taxes, and we’re asking college students to take on even more debt to get an education? We’re telling seniors they may need to learn to live on less? It isn’t right, and it’s the reason I’m running.”

Warren portrays herself as someone who’s not afraid of confronting Wall Street interests, having spearheaded the panel charged with overseeing how bank bailout funds were spent in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and having led the creation of the new consumer financial protection agency.

Her background should play well among Democratic-base voters and donors, whom she will need to rely on in a race that’s expected to be one of the most expensive Senate battles in 2012. It’s unclear, however, if the untested candidate will play as well with the moderate Democrats and independent voters who sent Brown to the Senate.

Before she can square off against Brown, however, Warren will have to navigate a competitive Democratic primary, with as many as six other candidates. That contest will not be decided until next September, and depending on how bruising a fight it is, could leave the eventual nominee with diminished resources heading into the matchup with Brown.

A WBUR poll released last week showed Warren trailing Brown by 9 percent, the closest of the four Democratic candidates surveyed. That was seen as a strong showing by Warren, considering that 44 percent of respondents said they had never heard of her.

Warren appears focused on improving her name recognition with her campaign launch, foregoing a big announcement speech for a series of smaller meet-and-greet events, beginning with a commuter stop Wednesday morning in South Boston.

The Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson looks at what Warren’s entrance could mean for the general election race and notes that Brown supporters “have already branded the Harvard Law School professor a ‘militant liberal.’”

“They have ridiculed her website image of Boston for being taken from the Cambridge side of the Charles River. And they have even secured the domain name ‘QueenElizabethWarren’ to fuel their caricature, should it become necessary,” Johnson reports.

While Brown is viewed favorably by a majority of Massachusetts voters and has a well-stocked campaign war chest, he’ll also need to overcome a hurdle that wasn’t there in his special election victory in early 2010: having President Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket in a state he won by 26 percent in 2008.

GOING OFF SCRIPT

Looks like White House press secretary Jay Carney may have gone a bit further than he or his White House colleagues intended when he was answering questions about whether or not President Obama would accept pieces of his jobs bill if Congress refused to act on it in its entirety.

“We think all of the measures are good,” Carney said in a gaggle with reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One en route to Columbus, Ohio. “But if you’re saying, if Congress sent us the portion that would ensure that teachers went back to work, yes, the president would sign it. And then he would press for the other provisions. If they sent us the payroll tax cut, we would sign it, and press for the other provisions. Because they are all vital, they’ve all enjoyed bipartisan support in the past.”

That sounded a bit different than what senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said on “Good Morning America” a few hours earlier.

“We are not in a negotiation to break up the package. It is not an a la carte menu,” Axelrod said, pressing the “pass this bill” mantra President Obama launched in his address to Congress last week.

On the way back from Ohio, a senior administration official seemed to want to clarify Carney’s remarks on the outbound flight.

“We’re going to take this to them every day,” said the senior administration official visiting the press cabin on Air Force One, “and challenge them to pass the whole bill.”

Republicans have made clear that they don’t expect the bill to pass in its current form as sent to the Hill by the President on Monday.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., seems to agree with that sentiment, according to the Washington Post.

“‘I don’t think anybody expects it to pass en bloc,’ Kerry told reporters Tuesday afternoon after the Senate Democrats’s weekly policy luncheon. ‘So, the issue is going to be what, if any, parts of it might be cherry-picked. And really that depends a lot on the overall mix of the negotiation.’”

Back over to you, senior administration official.

ON THE TRAIL

All events listed in Eastern Time.

  • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman visits with high school students in Merrimack, N.H., at 10 a.m.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., at 10 a.m. and attends a Republican Party of Virginia fundraiser in Richmond at 12:30 p.m.

  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a business roundtable in Tucson, Ariz., at 11:30 a.m. and holds a town hall in Sun Lakes, Ariz. at 5 p.m.

  • President Obama delivers remarks on the American Jobs Act in at North Carolina State University in Raleigh at 12:55 p.m.

  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich holds a town hall in Orlando, Fla., at 3 p.m. and attends a Ronald Reagan Assemblies of Florida Reagan Day Dinner in Lake Mary at 6 p.m.

For the rest of what’s ahead, be sure to bookmark our Political Calendar.

For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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