The finish line for political races is always the same, but the starting line is not. In the race to replace Anthony Weiner in the Congressional seat covering parts of Queens and Brooklyn, Democratic Assembly David Weprin began several paces ahead of his Republican opponent, retired businessman Bob Turner. For one thing, Democrats outnumber Republicans three–to-one. For another, Mr. Weprin has one of the most famous names in Queens politics–his father, Saul was a former speaker of the Assembly. And finally, the machinery to win low-turnout elections–the labor unions and local political machines that actually get people to the polls–skews almost entirely to Mr. Weprin’s side.
But if the Turner race teaches us anything it is that sometimes–and it is only sometimes–structural matters are secondary, and the better campaign can actually win. And that is what happened here. Mr. Turner simply ran a campaign that outflanked Mr. Weprin at every turn. It is a banal point, but one worth remembering amidst all of the post-election chatter about Israel and Obama and machine politics, all of these only became factors once the Turner campaign made an issue of them.
To wit, consider Israel. Making this race a referendum on President Barack Obama’s Middle Eastern policy was Ed Koch’s idea,but the Turner team ran with it. It seemed absurd. Mr. Weprin is an Orthodox Jew who has family in Israel and who has visited there many times. Mr. Turner had no real ties to Israel. But within days, Mr. Weprin was on the phone, defending his allegiance to the Jewish State and was forced to explain how his vote to legalize same-sex marriage was a civil rights, and not a religious consideration.
From the start, the Weprin team ran a front-runner’s campaign, not answering Bob Turner’s attacks or coming up with their own offense. After an initial Siena poll showed Weprin with only a slight lead, the Weprin campaign vowed to toughen up their message, and they repeatedly tried to make the race about Democratic hobbyhorses–Medicaid, Social Security, the Ryan Budget. But perhaps voters were tired of it. The Turner camp threw bombs and they hit. Mr. Weprin’s long career in politics enabled Mr. Turner to tie him to every scandal that had hit the City Council or the State Assembly in the last decade–slush funds, Richard Lipsky, and the like. The Ground Zero Mosque, which didn’t help Rick Lazio back when the issue was actually on the front pages, somehow became important again. Not until August 17, after weeks of attacks, did Mr. Weprin punch back. A slight misstatement on the size of the national debt to the Daily News editorial board was ridden for days by the Turner campaign.
The closest that the Weprin team came to punching back was when Bob Turner said that he didn’t support the 9/11 health bill passed through Congress last year and meant to pay for the health care of first responders injured in the attacks. But the narrative never caught on. The tabloids, by that point, were pasting Mr. Weprin for bringing “spies” into the the Turner campaign offices or for using “scare tactics” on area seniors. By the time the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee taped an ad with a sly reference to 9/11 in it, the race was over.
If the Weprin campaign can be cut any slack, it would be because special elections are, for lack of a better word, weird. This is the fourth in little more than three years, in New York, and the previous three were all won by Democrats in seats that were as heavily tilted towards the Republicans, as this one was towards the Democrats. It is proof that special elections are a little like the town halls that Congressmen subject themselves to during the off-season, where the only people who show up are those who are really pissed off about something and want their voices heard.