The victory of a little-known businessman over a New York Democrat reveals much about the state of US politics.

It’s an embarrassing setback for the Democrats. A little-known Republican businessman has won a congressional seat held by Democrats since 1920 in a district of New York where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by three to one.

Bob Turner, a Roman Catholic and retired cable television executive, defeated David Weprin, a former investment banker who began his political career 10 years ago. Weprin, an observant Jew, comes from a prominent Democratic family in Queens. At first he appeared to be a safe bet for the special election in New York’s heavily Democratic Ninth Congressional District, which spans parts of Queens and Brooklyn and has a large number of Jewish constituents. But it gradually became clear that this would be a tight race. On the eve of the election, pundits said it was too close to call.

Turner and Weprin were battling over the seat previously held by shamed Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner. Weiner left his post in June after a bout of embarrassing ‘sexting’ on Twitter. His high-profile resignation may have contributed to the significant amount of media attention afforded to the special election.

The national parties, for their part, paid nominal attention to the race at the outset. The two candidates were selected without much fanfare in early July. However, as it became clear that Turner stood a good chance of taking the Democratic safe seat, national Democrats started pumping cash into Weprin’s campaign. Heavyweight political figures were also drawn in to offer their endorsements for the two candidates.

So what about the voters? In fact, it seems most constituents of the Ninth District couldn’t care less about this special election.

On Monday, a day before the ballot boxes opened, the New York Times reported that only about 10 per cent of the district’s 343,000 registered voters were expected to participate in the election. And people passing by the Democratic candidate David Weprin’s office on that day were apparently baffled by the crowds of reporters gathered there, wondering what all the commotion was about.

Weiner’s resignation in June allowed party leaders to bypass primaries and to choose the two candidates themselves, meaning that voters did not have a say in the candidate options. The Democrat leadership, in particular, proved itself unable to grasp its supporters’ interests or preferences.

So to the Democrat bosses, Weprin seemed like a safe choice in a district with a large concentration of orthodox Jews and where his name rings a bell to many. He raised more money than Turner and also had the support of labour unions and strong local party organisations. In addition, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ended up spending over $600,000 on television ads and political bigwigs like former US president Bill Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo recorded automated phone messages with endorsements for Weprin. But all this was to no avail.

Weprin’s loss marked the fourth time in two years that a New York special election has gone terribly wrong for a candidate picked by the dominant party. This indicates that the leaders are far from in tune with the electorate and unable to convince them that they know who’s best for them.

There has been intense speculation about what went wrong this time, and what the tight Turner-Weprin race means for national politics. It’s been said that this was a battle not just over the political future of a blue-collar district of New York, but of America. It was a referendum on Obama, Republicans claimed. It was a case of Americans protesting against Obama’s stance on Israel, others said (including former Democratic mayor of New York City Edward Koch, who endorsed Turner for this reason). It was a backlash against the ruling administration’s disastrous handling of the economy. It was a case of Catholics and orthodox Jews protesting against Weprin’s support for same-sex marriage. It was an expression of residual anger towards Weiner and his pathetic cyber romps.

Yes, the Democrats’ loss of a previous safe seat is a historical shift in so far as a Republican has not taken it in nine decades. But, more than anything, this special election became a symbolic battleground for politicians caught up in court politics.

In truth, the real ‘grand message’ of this special election was that the candidates couldn’t get the vote out and that hundreds and thousands of dollars of campaigning money can’t buy you voters’ interest and confidence.