Breaking the GOP's Special Election Curse

Breaking the GOP's Special Election Curse
How Republican underdog Bob Turner turned the tide in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

No other victorious Republican congressional campaign owes more to new media than Bob Turner’s campaign in New York’s 9th Congressional District for the simple reason that former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) opened a Twitter account.

Weiner’s Twitter implosion and subsequent resignation earlier this summer helped open the door for Turner in an overwhelmingly Democratic district and paved the way for what ended up being one of the biggest political upsets in years. Turner’s special election victory over Democrat David Weprin in September further soured the mood for President Obama and national Democrats, who were already worried about sagging poll numbers ahead of 2012.   

But Turner’s victory wasn’t all about Obama or his negative approval numbers on the economy. Turner’s successful run for Congress was about smart targeting, earned media and employing the tactics that were just right for the moment.

Laying the Groundwork

In the run up to the 2010 midterms, Turner sought out his Queens neighbor Mike Long—the powerful and respected chairman of the New York State Conservative Party. In New York’s multi-party system, the Conservative Party often makes an endorsement first. And given its ballot line, it’s an endorsement that carries serious weight.

Turner didn’t come to Long because he wanted to run for Congress, though. He thought the country was in trouble and that Anthony Weiner was part of the problem. Turner actually wanted to write a check and volunteer to help whoever was running against Weiner in 2010.

“We don’t have anyone,” Long told Turner during their first meeting. The lack of a candidate was understandable. Registered Democrats account for six in 10 voters in NY-9 and outnumber Republicans better than 3 to 1.

However, the district offered at least a glimmer of hope for a strong challenger. Seven in 10 votes in the district come out of Queens and include remnants of the old “Archie Bunker district” that sent Geraldine Ferraro to Congress back in the late 1970s. The district stretches from Rockaway through Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Woodhaven, Middle Village, and up to Forest Hills.

Three in 10 of the district’s voters hail from Brooklyn, including the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Bergen Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay. The plurality of voters in NY-9 are typical Catholic ethnic voters—Irish, Italian and German ethnics with a growing Hispanic population. Unique to the district is that a third of the vote consists of Jewish voters who are evenly split among Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox.

Turner met Long at Conservative state party headquarters—a second story walk up over a deli storefront in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. They talked through the country’s problems and Long asked, “Why don’t you run?” Bob went home to talk it over with his wife Peg.

A few days later, Turner was back and told Long he was committed to the race. He then called our firm to get started with a poll to see just what he was getting into. We polled in June 2010 and found the president had a net unfavorable rating of 44 percent to 46 percent, but Weiner still polled well. He had a positive favorable rating and he led over the then-unknown Turner 54 percent to 20 percent.

With our work cut out for us, we launched a grassroots campaign—signs to up Turner’s name ID and volunteers on the streets. We polled again in September and found Weiner leading 58 percent to 26 percent. The race never made it on the radar of either national party.  

Weiner spent over a million dollars and Turner raised and contributed less than $350,000. While New York would have the greatest net pickup for House Republicans of any state in the country last year, NY-9 wasn’t in the win column.

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