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.
On the upside—Turner did get 39 percent. It was the closest challenge Weiner ever saw. Even though we hadn’t won, Turner made strong inroads in Brooklyn among the Orthodox Jewish community and built a strong grassroots organization with over 400 working volunteers throughout the district.
What we didn’t know then was that within a matter of months, Turner would be able to put those building blocks to work for another shot at a congressional seat.
A Second Chance
By June, a scandal-plagued Anthony Weiner was forced to resign and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had called a special election. The conventional wisdom was that despite the scandal, Democrats would have no problem holding onto the district.
We didn’t mind being underestimated.
The major party nominations would be decided by the respective party leaders. There were several aspiring GOP candidates, but we had an ally in Long, who thought Turner was best suited to run. The Conservative Party pulled the trigger first and nominated Turner. The Brooklyn and Queens County Republican chairs followed suit.
Despite the earlier loss, Turner had some positives to take away from the 2010 cycle—a strong grassroots organization, a base fundraising operation, good relationships with community leaders and positive name imagery. He also turned out to be a skilled candidate and campaigner.
The powerful Queens and Brooklyn Democratic organizations chose New York State Assemblyman David Weprin as the party’s candidate. Weprin came from a well-known and powerful Democratic family. The chosen David was presumed to be a Goliath.
For the special, Turner decided he needed to add some more professional help to his strong volunteer operation. He wanted experienced operatives who knew how to win in heavily Democratic New York.
Long, GOP State Chairman Ed Cox and myself recommended E. O’Brien Murray for the role of campaign manager. “O’B,” as his friends call him, had worked with former Gov. George Pataki and helped elect former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Back in 2009, he had helped bring Doug Hoffman within a hair of winning a special election on a third party ballot line. He quickly began organizing Turner’s volunteers for a guerrilla war in which we would be underfunded, but very aggressive.
New York-based media consultant Bill O’Reilly was also added to the team. He would run an aggressive earned media campaign to keep Weprin on defense and build Turner’s momentum on a daily, if not hourly, basis. (Bill isn’t related to his Fox News Channel namesake, but he is the nephew of conservative icon William F. Buckley.) As an extra resource, the NRCC had a new Northeast field manager in John Rogers, who had worked closely with O’B and O’Reilly before. He would prove a valuable partner.
The reality is that in New York, it takes a lot of Democratic votes to elect any Republican. Even if Turner won 90 percent of the Republican and Conservative Party vote and 60 percent of non-enrolled independents, he would still need more than a third of Democrats to win.
It meant we had to make major inroads among Catholic and Jewish Democrats. The focus had to be on keeping the Republicans and Conservatives fully motivated, while creating Democratic rejection of Weprin and support for Turner. We thought we could develop the necessary rejection on the economy and national security—particularly regarding relations with Israel.
The opportunity for the most important endorsement came early in the campaign. On a cable news show, former Mayor Ed Koch (D) said that he would likely support Weprin, but within a week Koch was saying the district could “consign itself to oblivion or be remembered in the history books.” Turner seized on the signal. He called Koch and met with him the next day. Turner assured him that they agreed on Israel, Social Security and Medicare and by the end of July Koch was standing next to Turner making what would be the most important endorsement in the race.
Koch had given Democrats in Brooklyn and Queens permission to vote for Turner. Now the Turner campaign had to make its case and send Obama a message from members of his own party.
Framing the Race
By the end of July, we knew that Turner was within striking distance. In our first poll, he trailed by only 8 points with 22 percent of likely voters undecided. There was strong voter dissatisfaction, even among the most loyal Democrats.
Among Jewish voters, 58 percent disapproved of Obama. On the president’s handling of relations with Israel, 70 percent of Jewish voters in the district disapproved.
On the issues, the Democrats agreed with the Republicans in the district. And the ethnic Catholic voters backed up the Jewish voters on issues related to Israel and security.
Turner could now play offense on two major themes: improving the economy and strengthening security. O’B asked us to quickly put together a poll memo to try to get donors. The Washington insiders scoffed, “The Republicans can’t win special elections in upstate New York Republican districts. They won’t win in New York 9.”
On August 10, Siena College released a public poll that showed Weprin leading by just 6 percentage points—48 percent to 42 percent. Turner was getting 30 percent of Democrats to Weprin’s 60 percent.
It was time for a little paid media—and we do mean a little. The campaign was running on financial fumes. Turner had invested another $65,000 on top of the money he put in last year. Some money was coming in from friends and true believers in New York, but it was nothing near what Republicans had invested in previous losing special elections in NY-20, NY-23 and NY-26.
O’B had found a worker with a year old clip from a previous debate of Weprin supporting the building of a mosque near Ground Zero. The talented media producer Chris Mottola would make our one and only TV ad, which would link Obama and Weprin on building the mosque. The ad went up on August 11 and ran for less than a week, but the point was made in free media. It wouldn’t run again until the last week of the race and then only on cable for $35,000. Weprin attacked Turner for raising the issue before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But Turner stuck to his position and it backfired on Weprin.
Four weeks out from Election Day, the earned media was moving fast and furious and the New York and the national media now had the race in focus. Bob was running between Manhattan and his outer borough district for TV and radio hits while keeping up a full schedule of local media appearances—Russian radio, Jewish weeklies, synagogue and community group debates. O’B made sure the voters knew when Weprin was outside waiting for Turner to finish an appearance before he would go in. And O’Reilly handed out duck whistles to emphasize Weprin “ducking” debates.
The race was now getting daily media coverage in the largest media market in America.
Capitalizing on the Mistakes
Turner made reckless government spending a central issue in his campaign and Weprin offered us a great opportunity to highlight it. In an interview with The Daily News, Weprin understated the national debt by $10 trillion.
At that very moment, we were deciding our plan for the campaign’s final week and running on fumes. O’B was doing financial triage every day. He was deciding hourly what calls, mailings, ads and payroll we could afford as donations rolled in. He needed to know if Turner could really win.
With the weekend looming, we had just one night to poll. (With the high level of religious Jewish voters, we couldn’t poll on Friday night or Saturday. So with just $2,000 in the bank, O’B ordered the second and last poll of the race. At 3 a.m. we emailed the results and then called him with the message, “You are tied at 42 percent.” He told Turner the next day at a news conference with Ed Koch.
Turner was winning Republicans and independents easily, while taking 21 percent of Democrats. We still needed more. We decided the final week would be all about winning those Democrats—they were heavily Jewish.
By this point, the Democrats were really sweating. The DCCC released a one page memo claiming to be a tracking poll with Weprin up 8 points. There was no question wording or real methodology, but they did use the memo to attack Turner on Social Security and Medicare and many in the media ran with it just because it came from the DCCC.
Despite the spin, they knew Weprin was in real trouble. They brought in hundreds of workers from outside the district. From our grassroots leaders on the ground, we had reports that some Jewish voters were unhappy Weprin had people knocking on doors on Shabbos and that he had not taken a firm stand against Obama’s approach to Israel.
We loaded the final week with rallies and phone messages, even employing Donald Trump as a surrogate. The real estate mogul did a press avail with Bob and the Democrats foolishly sent pickets, which ensured us even more coverage.
Koch was urging Democrats to send Obama a message and State Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D), who happens to be Orthodox, made a key endorsement. Democrats were in panic mode. Over the last weekend, the Weprin camp, the DCCC and House Majority PAC dropped more than $1 million in media buys. But they made some serious errors.
The DCCC attacked Turner for favoring tax loopholes for corporate jets in an ad that showed a jet flying over the New York skyline—a big mistake so close to the 9/11 anniversary. O’Reilly instantly captured it and served it up for Hikind to call a news conference to have the ad pulled. The DCCC edited the ad and continued to run it, but the damage was done.
It ultimately came down to turnout. It would be Turner’s volunteers against the Queens and Brooklyn Democratic organizations and their national allies from Team Obama and the DCCC. Hundreds of volunteers would knock on doors and make personal phone calls all day on Election Day.
By 10 p.m., we already knew our plan had worked. As we tracked the returns, it was clear that we were well ahead of our goals. We were running even in Weprin’s base and racking up margins of 4 to 1 and 5 to 1 in districts dominated by Orthodox voters in Brooklyn. Turner won 54 percent to 46 percent.
Determination and a candidate with a message and passionate volunteers beat out money and traditional political organization. On September 13th, voters in NY-9 sent the president a message and Turner was their messenger.
John McLaughlin is the CEO and a partner at the Republican polling firm, McLaughlin & Associates.