Republican Bob Turner's surprise win in the 9th Congressional District makes New York's unpredictable redistricting outlook even murkier, and could threaten New York City Democratic incumbents who thought they were safe.
New York will lose two congressional seats to faster-growing states in the process that redraws election district lines every 10 years based on population. Traditionally, the Assembly's Democratic majority would sacrifice a Democrat and the Senate's Republican majority would give up one of its seats to reach agreement on new lines.
For Democrats, eliminating the 9th Congressional District — vacated by disgraced Democrat Anthony Weiner in a sexting scandal — was an easy call rather than taking a district away from a more senior incumbent.
Now, however, the state Senate's Republican majority might not be so willing to agree to eliminate the district, and instead force Democrats to target another of their districts. That would allow Republicans to gain greater influence in New York City.
On Tuesday, Democrats lost the Queens-Brooklyn seat in a special election to fill the term of Rep. Anthony Weiner. He resigned from the seat Democrats held since the 1920s after a sexting scandal in which lewd pictures of himself surfaced on the internet. Even the efforts of Democratic stars including former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer, who once represented the district, couldn't win the seat for David Weprin.
Many Republicans see a growing conservative and orthodox Jewish constituency that could keep the seat in GOP hands for years, not just for a special election at a time when Democratic President Obama is low in New York polls. Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos could gamble that the party can keep the seat and gain an important congressional foothold in otherwise Democrat-dominated New York City politics.
Republicans "have a head start, but there's no guarantee they can keep it," said Arthur Kremer, a Republican state assemblyman for 23 years and now a private attorney involved in state and municipal affairs and lobbying.
"This is bad news for downstate Democrats because it creates new potential headaches," he said. "It just may be that somebody's district downstate that wasn't going to disappear, could disappear."
But Democrats say there is no reason to panic.
"This was an anomalous election," said Pace Law School Professor Randolph McLaughlin, an expert in voting rights law that is at the heart of redistricting.
A number of factors may have made the seat more vulnerable than usual.
Turner mounted his unlikely challenge in a heavily Democratic district when Obama's policies toward Israel drew criticism from former Mayor Ed Koch. Koch, a Democrat, endorsed Turner along with Republican Rudy Giuliani, as the nation observed the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and was reminded of Giuliani's leadership as mayor.
The special election was also a constant reminder of Weiner's sexting scandal this summer, the latest in a line of Democratic scandals in New York.
"It was a unique set of circumstances," McLaughlin said. "I don't think it bodes ill or well for either Republicans or Democrats. I think it means nothing."
Schumer said the conservative district is no bellwether of national politics, noting that just 55 percent of the heavily Democratic district voted for Obama, who overwhelmingly won New York City in 2008. Schumer also points out he survived two redistricting sessions when pundits predicted he'd be drawn out of a job.
"Anybody who tries to extrapolate what happened in this district and what happened in New York City, New York state and the country is making a big mistake," Schumer said Wednesday.
The Senate's Republican majority has months to work out a deal with the Assembly's Democratic majority. Traditionally, each side supports the other's plan as long as both majority incumbents are protected.
Cuomo has vowed to veto any partisan plans that simply protect majority power, but he hasn't explained what would trigger his veto and the Senate's GOP majority has become his strongest ally in budget cuts and in capping local property taxes, muddying the political waters some.
Public hearings on redistricting continue into October, before negotiations begin.
"It's much too early to discuss the parameters of particular districts," said state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, head of the Senate redistricting team.