Smart money would suggest the House seat vacated by disgraced New York City Rep. Anthony D. Weiner will stay in Democratic hands after next month's special election. However, political handicappers this week said the contest appears closer than first expected, giving the GOP an outside shot at capturing the district for the first time in decades.
Results of a Siena Research Institute poll released Wednesday show Democrat David Weprin leading Republican Robert Turner by just six percentage points — 48 percent to 42 percent — in a district with three times as many Democratic voters as Republicans.
"Five weeks until election day, and this special election is a wide-open race," said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg.
The Cook Political Report, also sensing a GOP shift in the race, on Thursday moved its rating of the contest from "likely Democratic" to the more competitive "leans Democratic."
Even some Republican officials were caught off guard by the poll results.
"Like so many people, we're surprised by the poll," said a senior House Republican aide. "I think a better guess would've been eight or 10 points maybe, but six is pretty darn close."
While Mr. Weprin holds a 2-1 advantage over Mr. Turner with Democrats in the Siena poll, Mr. Turner has a nearly 6-1 lead among Republicans and a slim 4 percentage point lead with independent voters.
Nine percent of the survey's respondents — who were likely voters — said they didn't know whom they would vote for or had no opinion.
With a low turnout expected and limited media exposure in the nation's most expensive media market, the test of both campaigns will be to mount strong voter-identification efforts and effective get-out-the vote operations, Mr. Greenberg said.
"The campaign that does a better job on those crucial campaign tasks will likely produce a victory for their candidate," he said.
Mr. Turner, 70, a longtime business executive, lost to Mr. Weiner by 20 percentage points in last year's race for New York's 9th Congressional District, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens. But the incumbent resigned in June after admitting to having sexually charged online relationships with several women, setting up the Sept. 13 special election to fill out the remainder of his term, which expires in early January 2013.
Mr. Weprin, 55, a New York state assemblyman and a former New York City Council member, likely enjoys better name recognition than his opponent in the district, which — like most in New York City — leans Democratic.
Yet dissatisfaction with President Obama among the district's mix of socially conservative Catholics and Jewish voters upset with the president's positions on Israel will pose a significant challenge for the Democratic candidate, said David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report.
"I think it's fair to say that Weprin will need to distinguish himself from Obama to put this race away," Mr. Wasserman said.
Mr. Turner has picked up the endorsement of the New York State Conservative Party, which decided against running its own candidate in the race. The Republican also received the high-profile endorsement of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
But the candidates likely won't receive financial help from the House Democratic and Republican fundraising arms, as both view the district as a Democratic stronghold.
"I don't know how many resources could overcome a 130,000 voter registration advantage" in favor of the Democrats in the district, the House GOP aide said.
Some Republicans also expect the Siena poll results to spur union organizers to campaign more heavily for Mr. Weprin.
"If Republicans in New York want to win this seat, they'll have to do it on their own, and it'll have to be relatively organic," Mr. Wasserman said.
Weprin campaign spokeswoman Elizabeth Kerr also said it's important not to forget the main message of the Siena poll — that the Democrat is in the lead.
"This poll simply confirms what we already know — that David Weprin is winning this election because New Yorkers know they can trust him to protect Medicare and Social Security and reform the tax code to make millionaires and Big Oil pay their fair share," she said.
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