NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Republican upset in a historically Democratic congressional district of New York City rattled Democrats and a besieged President Barack Obama going into November 2012 elections.
"We are not going to sugar coat it, this was a tough loss," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote in an open memo on Wednesday, a day after Republican Bob Turner scored an 8-point victory over Democrat David Weprin.
Turner, a retired media executive, won 54 percent of the vote to Weprin's 46 percent, handing the seat to Republicans for the first time since the 1920s in a heavily Jewish district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1.
Weprin, a state assemblymen, conceded on Wednesday in a loss Republicans called evidence of voter discontent with the Democratic president.
"The people are not happy with the Democratic Party in our district or in Washington. That includes the president," said voter Tyler Zuckerman, 60, a retiree. "It's about jobs or lack thereof. It's about the president not sticking to his fan base, so they won't stick with him."
Democrats in the district straddling parts of Brooklyn and Queens were embarrassed by the former congressmen there, Anthony Weiner, who resigned amid scandal in June for sending lewd pictures of himself to women on the Internet.
Tuesday's special election took place in the media glare of New York City and underscored Obama's potential weakness with Jewish voters, who will play a crucial role in important swing states such as Florida in 2012.
Prominent Democrats including former Mayor Ed Koch and orthodox Jewish state Assemblyman Dov Hikind crossed party lines to protest Obama's stance on Israel, a signal that conservative Jews who traditionally back Democrats can switch parties.
"New Yorkers put Washington Democrats on notice that voters are losing confidence in a president whose policies assault job-creators and affront Israel," said Pete Session, chairman of the House Republicans campaign committee.
Some critics say Obama has failed to sufficiently support Israel and object to his call for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to use the Jewish state's pre-1967 borders as a starting point.
"I know fully well that this is about Obama. It is bigger than the district," said Jerome Richards, 55, a corrections officer. "People are turning on him, like Mayor Koch, so its going to be hard next year."
U.S. unemployment of 9.1 percent also is weighing on Obama, whose approval rating remains below 50 percent.
"The economy is the main thing keeping Obama down. No one really cares about what he promised in 2008 or if he came through when they don't have a job," said Eli Port, 57, who voted for Weprin.
Turner's triumph, and a Republican victory in another special House election -- in Nevada -- boosted the Republican majority over Democrats in the House to 242-192.
Democrats sought to downplay the loss, saying the district has been trending Republican in recent years and contending it would have no bearing on 2012, when Obama will seek a second term against a Republican to be determined in a series of primary elections that begin in January.
Obama could also take solace in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday showing his approval rating got a small lift after he unveiled a jobs plan last week, keeping him ahead of all potential Republican rivals in the 2012 election.
The percentage of Americans who view Obama's job performance favorably edged up to 47 percent in the poll conducted September 8-12, up from 45 percent in August.
One expert cautioned against reading too much into the special election results.
"Sure, this election sent a message to Democrats that they are in trouble, but they already knew that," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who tracks congressional races. "What does this election say about 2012? Absolutely nothing. Fourteen months is a long times in politics. A lot can happen."
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington and Paula Rogo in New York; Editing by Doina Chiacu