Anthony Weiner’s seat, which includes parts of Queens and Brooklyn, should be safe for Democrats, but the September 13 special election to replace him is proving surprisingly competitive. Democrat David Weprin is losing ground to Republican Bob Turner. Making matters worse for Democrats, Weprin has turned into a gaffe machine right as voters are tuning in for the final stretch.
The influential New York Daily News savaged Weprin over the weekend after he belly flopped on a simple question from their editors: what is the national debt? With a reported “deer in headlights” look, he twice guessed $4 trillion, about $10 trillion off from the correct answer. As cringe-worthy a moment as it was on its own, its impact is much worse in Weprin’s case: he’s been selling himself as a fiscal Mr. Fix-it, touting his eight years as chair of the City Council’s finance committee as his top qualification.
The next day Weprin dropped out of a debate with Turner at the last minute, citing logistical problems caused by the hurricane. But the storm had already passed and the move prompted speculation — fanned by Turner’s camp — that Weprin had dropped out to avoid taking heat for his debt screw-up the day before. There are still several debates scheduled over the next two weeks.
And things were starting to look competitive already: a Siena poll earlier in the month gave Weprin only a modest 46-40 lead.
“It’s just a mess,” one Democratic consultant told TPM. “I still think he’s going to win, but it’s uncomfortably close right now. “
Weprin’s campaign is counting on a combination of union support and negative attacks to even the score in the final weeks. They also scored some good news on Wednesday: a strong New York Times endorsement.
“The Weprin campaign is implementing an aggressive GOTV and voter information campaign to share our message and spread the truth about Bob Turner and the fact that the budget policies he supports would decimate Medicare and Social Security and make it impossible to fund health care benefits for 9/11 volunteers and FEMA disaster aid,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr told TPM.
Weprin has aggressively sought to tie Turner to the Tea Party, but Turner has shown shades of Scott Brown and distanced himself from both groups. He opposes Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan and a spokeswoman told TPM that he would likely have supported the $4 trillion “grand bargain” President Obama floated that included revenue increases.
“We need Democrats to consciously take a leap of faith vote for Turner,” spokesman Bill O’Reilly (not that one) told TPM. “If we don’t accomplish that, if we don’t ask that the right way, then we don’t win, plain and simple.”
Turner has thrown plenty of ugly punches at Weprin to do so, however, running a TV ad criticizing his support for a Muslim group’s right to build a community center near Ground Zero. Turner’s also aggressively courted Jewish voters by accusing the White House of selling out Israel, a particularly galling attack given that Weprin is a practicing Orthodox Jew and has condemned Obama’s approach to the Middle East on similar grounds. Turner scored an endorsement from former Democratic mayor Ed Koch, who cited Israel as the primary factor behind his support.
One x-factor is the unusual timing of the election, which will take place only two days after the tenth anniversary of September 11th. The local news will be dominated by 9/11 coverage for the final week, making it difficult for both sides to get their message out. Neither candidate will likely air ads that day and may have to tone their attacks down in the last few days. But the event also coincides with a new line of attack for Weprin, who has gone after Turner for criticizing the James Zadroga Act, which provides health care to 9/11 first responders and volunteers sickened by chemicals at Ground Zero.
This story has been updated.
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Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.