A Not-That-Special Election

In terms of real-world consequences, it would be hard to find a less significant congressional election than Tuesday’s New York contest, in which Republican Bob Turner won Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner’s former seat.

For the next 16 months, Turner will add one more vote to an already solid GOP majority in the House. It is highly unlikely that the fate of any legislation will change with Turner representing the Ninth District’s slice of Brooklyn and Queens rather than his opponent, David Weprin. Or, for that matter, that its fate would be different if Weiner had not driven himself from office by sending photographs of his crotch to women he had never met.

After next year, Turner’s new seat will probably no longer exist. New York is losing two House seats as a result of redistricting, and the Ninth District is an obvious target for elimination. If that happens, the only way Turner can get back to Congress is to win an election in November 2012, in a district that will be carefully drawn to give a neighboring Democratic incumbent (one with more sense than Weiner) a big advantage. Despite Turner’s victory in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one, he is not likely to do it again.

But Turner’s victory is getting national attention because of what it may or may not say about the broader political picture, and particularly about President Obama’s current standing and future prospects. Here, too, I think there is less to the story than meets the eye.

Republicans lost no time in portraying the result as a rebuff to Obama and fellow Democrats. “Tonight New Yorkers have delivered a strong warning to the Democrats who control the levers of power in our federal government,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. “It’s time to scrap the failed ‘stimulus’ agenda.” Turner himself told supporters, “I am the messenger – heed us. This message will resound into 2012.”

The sour economy and stagnant job market were clearly big factors, evident in polling that showed Turner steadily overtaking Weprin as the summer advanced. But the Ninth District is closely aligned with the Democrats on economic issues. This is not Tea Party country, and one of Weprin’s key campaign strategies was to try to tie his opponent as closely as possible to the most fiscally conservative elements of the GOP. The fact that it did not work does not mean voters in New York’s outer boroughs have suddenly become believers in supply-side economics.

Democrats tied themselves in logical knots trying to dismiss Turner’s victory as meaning nothing about anything. My own Florida congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, blamed Weprin’s defeat on the Ninth District’s large concentration of orthodox Jews. Weprin himself is an observant Jew. Weiner is Jewish. Turner is Roman Catholic. Go figure.

Schultz’s reasoning is apparently twofold: First, that the district’s Jewish community agreed with former Mayor Ed Koch that the Obama administration “threw Israel under the bus,” and followed Koch’s advice to vote for Turner as a rebuke; and second, that Weprin, a state assemblyman, offended the socially conservative orthodox community by voting in favor of same-sex marriage.

The problem with this reasoning is that Weiner likewise supported same-sex marriage, or at least consistently opposed efforts to restrict it. Nobody ever hinted that this position could cost Weiner his seat. Nor is it likely that Weiner’s constituents would have turned him out of office to protest Obama’s positions on Israel, which are not very different from those of the Bush and Clinton administrations that preceded him.

To me, the interesting question is this: What would have happened this week if Turner had run against an uncompromised Weiner? As it happens, we can make an educated guess about that possibility, because that was exactly the race that occurred in November 2010.

The background: Weiner won the district in 2008 with 93 percent of the vote. Republicans did not even bother to run a candidate against him that year. But Turner decided to take him on in 2010, the year the Republicans did well enough nationally to recapture the House after four years of the Nancy Pelosi speakership and two years of the Obama administration.

In the Ninth District, Weiner again ran strongly, with 61 percent of the vote. If those voters wanted to rebel against Obama, they had a chance last year and did not take it.

The economy has slowed since last fall; employment has flatlined, and we have all watched this summer’s tug-of-war over federal debt and deficits. Yet I still don’t think enough voters in the Ninth District would have changed their minds to toss Weiner out of Congress had he run against Turner. It would have been closer than last year, but I expect the result would have been the same.

My take is that, as in most special elections below the statewide level, national factors created the environment but local issues made of the difference. Weprin, like most denizens of the New York Legislature, is a reliable party hack. He is not blazingly bright, but he can be counted upon to vote as expected. New York City’s Democratic machine tried to foist him on the Ninth District to keep the seat warm until its elimination. Weprin does not even live in the district. The race soon became entangled in local politics, as various figures jockeyed to improve their positions in the race for New York City mayor in 2013.

The wild card in all this was the Ninth District’s voters. Democrats there were not enthusiastic to begin with, and they had every reason to either stay home or jump ship after their party simply took their votes for granted. Republicans and independents, though a local minority, were certainly fired up to send a message to Washington. The result was an inconsequential one-off victory for the GOP.

New York is not about to go red in the 2012 presidential election. The takeaway from this week’s vote is not that Obama is in danger of losing in the core areas of his support, but that the president and his party are in trouble in the truly competitive swing districts and states. In those places, voters will be asking themselves in 14 months whether their lives have gotten better or worse over the prior four years. Democrats have very good reason to be worried about the answer. We knew this long before the first vote was cast on Tuesday.

About Larry M. Elkin 533 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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