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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.
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.
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 Rudy Giuliani, the popular former New York City Republican mayor.
“Our constituents here are concerned about the basics,” Turner said. “We’ll wait to hear what the voters say.”
Weprin campaigned at a Queens senior center Monday and greeted voters at a subway stop with Democrats including 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 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 50-44 percent margin. The same poll found just 43 percent of voters approving of Obama’s job performance, while 54 percent said they disapproved. The president fared much worse among independents. Just 29 percent said they approved of his job performance, while 68 percent disapproved.
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 and help get his backers to the polls.
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 labor and other affiliated groups to bring voters to the polls.
“We’re going to fight for every vote until the polls close Tuesday,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “When voters learn the real difference between David Weprin and Bob Turner, they’ll vote their Democratic values.”
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 favor 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.
Siena Poll Director Steve Greenberg said the economy remained the most important issue in the race. And, he said, that spells bad news for Democrats in this special election and nationally.
“We have people hurting, in need of jobs, and they are blaming Washington,” Greenberg said. “They are angry and frustrated. And Barack Obama is getting the brunt of their anger.”
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.twtter.com/bfouhy