NEW YORK, N.Y. - Democrat David Weprin faced an unusually tight race against Republican Bob Turner in a special election Tuesday in New York's heavily Democratic 9th Congressional District, where voters unhappy with President Barack Obama could elect a Republican for the first time.
The contest to replace disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner has become too close to call, with public opinion polling showing a slight edge for Turner, a retired media executive with no previous political experience.
Both candidates hit the streets Tuesday, meeting voters and trying to boost turnout, the key in most special elections. Weprin had a full public schedule of get-out-the-vote events, while Turner's only scheduled public appearances were his vote Tuesday morning and an after-the-vote party at a restaurant. His campaign said he would be out in the district all day drumming up support.
Panicked at the prospect of an embarrassing loss, Democrats have poured cash into the race and sent in their stars to try to save Weprin, a state lawmaker who has been forced to defend Obama's economic policies even as he tries to stress his own independence and close ties to the community.
Republicans are working to frame the race as a referendum on Obama, even though turnout is usually low in a special congressional election.
"It wasn't planned that way, but this is the only nationally contested election on the federal level, so it is, in a way, a referendum on President Obama's policies," Turner said Tuesday.
(Nevada also has a House election Tuesday after a shake-up that started with Republican Sen. John Ensign's resignation amid a sex scandal. Republican voters are trouncing their Democratic counterparts at the polls in a GOP-leaning district that has never elected a Democrat.)
On Monday, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor argued that a Turner victory would be an "unprecedented win" and the latest evidence of voter dissatisfaction with Obama.
"That district is not unlike the rest of the country. People are very unhappy with the economy tight now, and, frankly, I would say unhappy with the lack of leadership on the part of this White House," Cantor, of Virginia, told reporters in the Capitol.
Back in the district that spans parts of Queens and Brooklyn, Turner campaigned with Rudolph Giuliani, the popular former New York City Republican mayor.
There are also six special elections for vacant state Assembly seats and several local races on the ballot around the state.
Weprin campaigned at a senior centre Tuesday and greeted voters at a subway stop with Democrats including U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
With a large population of Catholic and Orthodox Jewish residents, the 9th Congressional District is broadly blue collar and more conservative than many others in the city. It's the kind of white, working-class environment that Obama struggled with in his 2008 campaign even as he was easily winning most other traditional Democratic constituencies.
A Siena Poll released Friday showed Turner leading Weprin among likely voters, with a 50 to 44 per cent margin. The same poll found just 43 per cent of voters approving of Obama's job performance, while 54 per cent said they disapproved. The president fared much worse among independents. Just 29 per cent said they approved of his job performance, while 68 per cent disapproved.
On Tuesday, Weprin said the polished Democratic machinery would get people to the polls.
"We have a lot of people with us, and I think we are going to pull out the votes," he said. "I think the polls are not going to reflect who's going to come out to vote."
Hoping to shift the momentum in the final days, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has invested more than $500,000 in ads in New York's pricey television market. An independent Democratic group, the House Majority PAC, is running ads, too. And Obama for America, part of the Democratic National Committee that support the president's re-election, is urging volunteers to rally behind Weprin.
The party also has enlisted two of its biggest guns, former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to record phone calls for Weprin. And Democrats are relying on organized labour and other affiliated groups to bring voters to the polls.
"When voters learn the real difference between David Weprin and Bob Turner, they'll vote their Democratic values," DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.
Weprin has tried to cast Turner as hostile to popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. It's a formula that worked for another Democrat, Kathy Hochul, who won a heavily Republican upstate New York district in a special election last May by vowing to protect those programs.
But Weprin, an orthodox Jew, has been on the defensive on gay marriage and Israel, which could peel away some support from the Orthodox community. He voted in favour of same-sex nuptials in the New York Assembly, and some Jewish voters have threatened to withhold support for Weprin because they disapprove of Obama's policies toward the Jewish state. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, endorsed Turner.
"Rightly or wrongly, it is (part of the race)," Turner said Tuesday. "This president has been less friendly than any other president in recent history, and I think today voters can hold him to account for it."
The House seat opened up in June when Weiner was pushed by party leaders to resign after sending sexually provocative tweets and text messages to women he met online.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.
Beth Fouhy can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy