The sex scandal that rocked New York’s 9th Congressional District this year is tame compared with those that launched “The Jerry Springer Show” to daytime TV fame.
But when Democratic former Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned from his seat after he was caught sending sexually suggestive messages to women over the Internet, Republican Bob Turner, the Springer show creator, was waiting in the wings to fight for the post.
The district has not been represented by a Republican since 1923. But Weiner’s departure, coupled with voter discontent over President Obama’s handling of the economy, could change that Tuesday when the district votes in a special election to fill the seat.
“If Turner wins, it’s going to be perceived to be, and in some sense really will be, a referendum on Obama,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York.
As Obama struggles to gain footing on a wobbly economy, his party has begun a frantic effort to avoid the embarrassment of losing the seat.
David Weprin, the Democratic candidate and a state assemblyman, led Turner by six percentage points just last month, according to a poll by Siena Research Institute in Loudonville, N.Y. Siena released a new poll Friday that showed Turner with a six-point lead.
Turner, the man behind scandalous daytime television — not to mention having launched conservative provocateur Rush Limbaugh’s television talk show — has attempted to appeal to the district’s large population of Orthodox Jews by linking Weprin to the controversial plan to build an Islamic community center near the former World Trade Center site and by tying Weprin to Obama’s stance on Israel.
Weprin, who is an Orthodox Jew, represents the same Assembly district that was held by his father and brother for a total of 38 years. As for the mosque, he said, “They have an absolute right to build on that site. But if they could work out an accommodation with the 9/11 families and find an alternative site, that would be preferable.”
The district, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens, “has always been seen as sort of the epicenter of the Jewish vote in New York City,” said Chris Malone, professor of political science at Pace University. “So Israel is always in the background.”
But the Siena poll shows that just 7% of voters consider Israel the top factor in the race. Sixty percent listed the candidates’ stance on Social Security, Medicare or economic recovery as top factors.
Turner’s recent and quick climb awoke a Democratic apparatus known for its ability to turn out votes in the district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 3 to 1.
“Democrats need to keep this seat just to save face,” Malone said. “Not only is the money flowing, but all of these elected [Democratic] officials, they’re all asking their staff members if they could take time out to go campaign for Weprin.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invested about $500,000 on a last-minute advertising campaign. House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, has spent at least $100,000 to run its own ad assailing Turner for his “tea party” ties.
That’s a lot of money in a race in which the candidates had raised $654,755 combined by late August.
Turner’s campaign got a small boost from the National Organization for Marriage. The group pledged to spend $75,000 to oppose Weprin, who in June voted for the bill that legalized same-sex marriage in New York.
National Republican Party groups had yet to spend significantly on the race, suggesting that the party might have less faith in Turner than his late boost in the polls might suggest. But even a close race — Turner won just 39% of the vote in his run against Weiner in 2010 — would be enough to embarrass Democrats.
“Even if Turner comes up short, it’s sort of a feather in the cap of the Republican Party,” Malone said.