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Republican wins US race in NY Democrat bastion

15 september 2011, 11:35
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Republican Bob Turner, who is running for U.S. Congress in a race in New York's heavily Democratic 9th District speaks with the media at a polling station. ©AFP
Republican Bob Turner, who is running for U.S. Congress in a race in New York's heavily Democratic 9th District speaks with the media at a polling station. ©AFP
A Republican businessman has won a special election for a US Congress seat in a Democrat stronghold here, dealing a major blow to President Barack Obama ahead of the 2012 White House race, AFP reports.

Republicans had portrayed the US congressional race as a referendum on Obama, whose popularity has sunk as Americans have grown increasingly frustrated with the stalled economic recovery and nine percent unemployment.

NY1 television reported early Wednesday that Bob Turner had defeated Democratic state and city legislator Dave Weprin in the election to fill the seat vacated by Anthony Weiner, who resigned over an online sex scandal.

NY1 said Turner has won 53 percent of votes compared to Weprin's 47 percent with 80 percent of the ballots counted, guaranteeing the Republicans their first victory in the Queens and Brooklyn district since 1923.

"This is an historical race. We have been asked by the people of this district to send a message to Washington and I hope they hear it loud and clear," Turner said in a televised victory speech.

"We are ready to say: 'Mister President, we are on the wrong track.'"

The seat opened in June when Weiner, a popular Democratic incumbent, resigned from the US House of Representatives after revelations that he was sending X-rated photos of himself to women he met online.

As if the clean-cut, married congressman's sex scandal was not embarrassing enough, Obama's party has now suffered a humiliating defeat in a district where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 3:1.

Republicans had predicted ahead of the race that it would reveal widespread discontent with Obama, whose popularity has sunk in recent months as his administration has grappled with the worsening economy.

"The attitude and approval rating of the president is having a lot to do with this electorate and the election outcome," Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday.

Obama has a lowly 45 percent national approval rating and risks being dragged down by the floundering economy as he gears up for a tough November 2012 election to stay in the White House.

Weprin had hoped that voters would instead sent a message to conservative Tea Party Republicans, whom he said had "basically held the nation hostage" last summer during tense negotiations over raising the national debt ceiling.

Samuel Abrams, professor of political science at Sarah Lawrence College outside New York City, said special elections like this often take on wider meaning as frustrated voters try to show off their power.

"A lot of times when you have an open seat like this it ends up as a referendum," Abrams said.

"Voters get very hot and bothered and use these opportunities to be very expressive... They know the eyes of the United States are looking at them."

But there are also significant local issues, especially the heavy concentration in the district of Orthodox Jews, who are socially very conservative and also fervently pro-Israel.

The wider Jewish community tends to be pro-Democratic, but this time the Jewish vote may have gone the other way.

Weprin, as a state assemblyman, voted for gay marriage in New York and also has backed the constitutional right of Muslims to build an Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks in downtown Manhattan.

Turner, in contrast, had portrayed himself as a social conservative and his campaign ads have resurrected last year's bitter public debate over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque."

Turner won the support of a former New York mayor and lifelong Jewish Democrat, Ed Koch.

But Weprin also fielded some big guns, with automated phone messages urging votes for him from former president Bill Clinton and current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, USA Today reported.

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