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The Jewish vote: Senate races to watch

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hillary vs. Donald is sucking all the air out of the room.

It’s been an amazing show so far, but it has also obscured important races down ticket, including a number with special Jewish significance — some because of Jewish candidates who may soon take the national stage or leave it – and some because of the prominence that a candidate has achieved on Israel-related issues.

Here are three close races to watch, and two more of interest because of what they could portend in coming elections

[Note: (R) indicates Republican; (D) indicates Democrat]:


Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson (R) vs. former Sen. Russ Feingold (D)


Senator Ron Johnson and former Senator Russ Feingold

What’s at stake: Feingold was a popular three-term senator swept aside in 2010 by Johnson, a Tea Party candidate with plenty  of money to spend. Now Feingold wants his seat back, and Democrats see it as a must-win if they are to retake the Senate. Democrats need four wins to take back the chamber if Hillary Clinton wins, five if she is defeated.

What it’s about, mostly: Free trade. Feingold, who is backed by Our Revolution, the organization set up by Sen. Bernie Sanders after he conceded the Democratic nomination to Clinton, opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Johnson authorized negotiations for the pact.

Why it’s news for Jews: With the impending retirement of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Feingold is one of two Senate wannabes who would keep the Senate Jewish caucus at nine. More substantively, Feingold is that increasing rarity: an outspoken pro-Israel progressive. In 2011 he told his home-state Jewish newspaper, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, that the Palestinians need “to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist” before pressing for a Palestinian state.

The political action committee affiliated with J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy lobby, injected $250,000 into the race in recent weeks. The same PAC also has infused some late cash into other close Senate races – Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Hampshire. J Street wants to assume the mantle long held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): anointing candidates who vote their way on Israel, in this case, in support of the Iran deal. (AIPAC loyalists would say that J Street is betting on a number of candidates likely to win without them and, besides, AIPAC isn’t a political action committee that can raise and spend money on candidates.) Yet if a substantial majority of the 14 Democrats that J Street is endorsing for Senate are elected — there are five sure shots, seven close calls and two long shots — J Street is in a position to say the narrative has changed.

Where the polls are: Feingold is averaging six points ahead of Johnson, according to the RealClear Politics aggregate.

Where the PACS are: Johnson has received contributions from right-of-center political action committees, including the Republican Jewish Coalition PAC and Washington PAC. Feingold, as noted, has JStreetPAC’s backing.

The Trumpometer: Johnson supports Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but will not endorse him – a parsing that some find confusing, but at least suggests that he’s not enamored of the nominee.


Illinois: Sen. Mark Kirk (R) vs. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D)


Senator Mark Kirk and Representative Tammy Duckworth

What’s at stake: Kirk until recently was seen as must-win if Republicans are to retain the Senate. He’s also that fast-disappearing creature, a moderate Republican, and moderates in the party are eager to preserve the species after years of battering by the Tea Party and then by Trump.

What it’s about, mostly: Deeply personal. There are policy differences between Kirk and Duckworth, but this race, perhaps because it’s seen as must-win in both camps, is extraordinarily bitter. Kirk in ads has suggested Duckworth is corrupt, citing a lawsuit against Duckworth dating from her stint heading the state’s veterans agency in which two whistle-blowing staffers alleged they were targeted for retaliation. (The case was settled this summer, with the agency not admitting wrongdoing.) Duckworth has spotlighted Kirk’s past exaggerations about his service in the U.S. Navy Reserve. (Kirk apologized in 2010.) Both candidates are also disabled: Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 that left him largely paralyzed on his left side; Duckworth, who served in the U.S. National Guard, lost both legs and the use of her right arm when her helicopter was hit by rocket fire in Iraq in 2004.

Why it’s news for Jews: Kirk, first as a congressman and since winning President Obama’s vacated Senate seat in 2010, took a lead role in shaping the sanctions that forced Iran to the talks table on curtailing its nuclear ambitions. He has been among the most strident critics of the deal exchanging sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback since it was reached last year. Kirk has accused Obama of giving Iran a pass on parts of the agreement. Duckworth, backed by J Street, has been an enthusiastic backer of the agreement.

Where the polls are: The RealClear Politics aggregate shows Duckworth ahead by seven points.

Where the PACs are: J Street has so far directed more than $145,000 to Duckworth, her second most generous PAC donor after Emily’s List, the feminist PAC. Similarly, Kirk’s top PAC donor is NORPAC, a mainstream pro-Israel political action committee that has sent nearly $129,000 to the incumbent. NORPAC takes its messaging cues from AIPAC.

The Trumpometer: Kirk is among incumbent Republicans who say they cannot vote for Trump. He will write in David Petraeus, the former CIA director.


Missouri: Sen. Roy Blunt (R) vs. Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D)


Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and Senator Roy Blunt

What’s at stake: No one expected Missouri to be in play, and the fact that it is shows how perilous this year’s election is for Republicans down ticket. Blunt is a Missouri Republican institution, having risen to majority leader, for a brief period, in the U.S. House of Representatives. One of his sons was the state’s governor in the 2000s. His defeat would be seen as a blow to the party’s establishment. Kander, unusually for a Democrat, has run as an outsider against the ultimate Washington insider.

What it’s about, mostly: The outsider vs. the insider. Kander, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran, has focused laser-like on that theme. An ad last month in which Kander assembles an assault rifle blindfolded and challenges Blunt to do the same has propelled his campaign to within striking distance of unseating Blunt. The incumbent’s response has been scattershot, attempting to tie Kander to Clinton on health care, immigration and gun issues. Blunt’s wife and three of his children are lobbyists, burnishing Kander’s outsider credentials. Also playing into the new blood vs. old blood narrative: Kander is 35 and Blunt is 66.

Why it’s news for Jews: Kander, who is Jewish, also holds the minority view within his party on the Iran nuclear deal – he doesn’t think it’s working out, he recently told Jewish Insider. However, he’s also of the “what’s done is done” school and, unlike Republicans who to want dismantle it, Kander wants to see its restrictions rigorously applied. His election would shore up hawkish pro-Israel Democrats within a party that has been at odds in recent years with Israel’s government and the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel community. That’s important to groups like AIPAC and it’s why J Street has been energetic in cultivating Jewish lawmakers — Congress tends to defer to its members belonging to the ethnicity/religion/gender/race/regional group most affected by an issue.

Blunt has been close to the pro-Israel community for decades; as House leader he led trips to Israel for GOP freshmen. He also has been out front in introducing pro-Israel legislation and has been a constant at Republican Jewish Coalition events His second wife, Abigail Perlman, is Jewish.

Where the polls are: The RealClear Politics aggregate has Blunt up by just one point.

Where the PACs are: Pro-Israel giving has not registered as a factor in this race, which is not surprising considering that it’s win-win for the mainstream community. (J Street does not back Kander.)

The Trumpometer: Blunt backs Trump, but this is not a problem in a state where the Republican nominee is doing well – as evidenced by Kander’s direct appeals to Trump voters to back him as an outsider while simultaneously condemning Trump.


ALSO OF INTEREST… Florida and Georgia are not close, but are worth watching because of what each portends for each party when it comes to Israel policy: Republicans moving to the right and Democrats to the left.


Florida: Sen. Marco Rubio (R) vs. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D)


Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Patrick Murphy

Rubio appears headed for reelection. Rubio made clear he wanted out of the Senate until the party pressured him to reconsider when it appeared it could lose the state — a turnabout Murphy has used against him. His return to politics restores the prospect of a presidential run – and that’s music to the ears of right-wing pro-Israel activists for whom Rubio is a favorite son.

He is fluent on Israel and the threats it faces, and has backed an array of pro-Israel initiatives in Congress. Most recently, he would not sign on to a letter circulated by AIPAC calling on Obama to refrain from lame duck pressure on Israel because it explicitly called for a two-state solution, a position that the right-wing pro-Israel community has been pressuring the Republicans to play down.


Georgia: Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) vs. Jim Barksdale (D)


Senator Johnny Isakson and Jim Barksdale

Isakson is likely set for reelection against Barksdale, a multimillionaire investor with deep roots in the state. For a while the seat was seen as contestable.

Barksdale is about as far left as one gets on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that silence is “complicity” when it comes to Palestine. He toured the West Bank in 2010 with Interfaith Peace Builders, a group that has ties to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

J Street did not back Barksdale, which is notable. Insiders there tell me it’s because he wasn’t seen as having much of a shot. But that could be said at one point or another of about half of the group’s endorsees. It would seem there is a new genus: a viable Democrat too far left for J Street to back.







The House elections: Doubling the Memphis contingent and other Jewish takes

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Seven Jews either running for open seats or challenging incumbents in Congress have a shot at winning; five in the House and two in the Senate. One Jewish Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, is retiring. If the other Jewish lawmakers keep their seats, the unofficial Jewish contingent in Congress would rise to 34 from 28 (24 in the House and 10 in the Senate).

Democrats appear likely to take the Senate. The House is a tougher challenge.

Here’s a look at six House races with unusual Jewish repercussions.


Doubling down in Memphis

Both of the city’s congressmen are likely to be Jewish. David Kustoff, a former U.S. attorney, is the Republican nominee in Tennessee’s 8th District and is virtually guaranteed election next week. He will join Steve Cohen, a Democrat representing the state’s 9th District. That’s two members of the state’s Jewish community, which is estimated at less than 30,000 and split between Nashville and the Home of the Blues, a city of about 700,000.

Apart from their religion, the two congressmen won’t have much else in common. Cohen is the only white in Congress representing a black majority district (he’s tried to become a member of the Congressional Black Caucus), while Kustoff represents the wealthier — and whiter — parts of Memphis and its suburbs.

Cohen advocates demilitarizing police forces; Kustoff calls himself a law-and-order candidate. Kustoff says the No. 1 priority for the United States is “fighting terror” in the Middle East and calls the Iran nuclear deal a “threat.” Cohen was one of the first Jewish lawmakers backed by J Street, the dovish Middle East Jewish policy group that advocates greater diplomatic engagement, and also one of the first to favor the Iran deal.

Kustoff boasts of deporting illegal immigrants when he was a U.S. attorney. Cohen sponsored a bill that sought to guarantee children legal representation before being deported.

Cohen was an early backer of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee. Kustoff is a Trump Republican, or was until he went into radio silence after it emerged earlier last month that the party’s nominee in a 2005 video boasted of sexual assault.


Lee Zeldin: It’s all about the Trump

Lee Zeldin became the only Republican Jew in Congress in 2014 when he was elected to represent New York’s 1st District, encompassing the eastern reaches of Long Island, handily taking the seat away from Tim Bishop. An Army veteran, he has become a go-to pro-Israel lawmaker and a leading voice in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

Zeldin’s was considered a swing district, and Democrats had been invested in retaking it, nominating Anna Throne-Holst, who founded an elementary school, to challenge the incumbent.

Those hopes would have appeared dashed when a Newsday/Siena College poll published on Oct. 8 showed Zeldin 15 points ahead. Except the poll was published a day after the emergence of the Trump tape and conducted in the week prior to its revelation. Zeldin called Trump’s talk “indefensible” but has remained unabashedly in the Trump camp, giving Throne-Holst an opening she’s been hammering. Newsday quoted Zeldin as saying, “I’d rather talk about what you stand for instead of who you stand with.” It might be too late for that:


Josh Gottheimer: Aiming to oust hard-core conservative 

Rep. Scott Garrett, serving the 5th District in northern New Jersey, is a deeply conservative Republican in a state famous for producing GOP moderates like incumbent Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith.

Redistricting after the 2010 census added heavily Jewish suburbs like Teaneck to the largely rural and exurban 5th, but it didn’t help: Garrett kept winning.

Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Microsoft executive, hopes to change that calculus. He has gotten help from an unexpected quarter: Garrett.

The congressman, in a closed door meeting in 2015, reportedly infuriated fellow GOP lawmakers when he said he would no longer redirect funds to assist others in the party now that it was backing openly gay candidates. (He denies that’s what he meant.) Lawmakers in safe seats are expected to share the wealth with their more vulnerable party colleagues; a refusal to do so is a recipe for isolation.

Wall Street, notably, took notice and started redirecting its financial support to Gottheimer.

Gottheimer, who started out trailing substantially, was leading Garrett at the outset of October, according to a poll by a Democratic political action committee.

More pertinently to a corner of the state with a large Orthodox Jewish population – and a politically conservative one – Garrett’s campaign in a radio ad accused Gottheimer, who is Jewish, of backing the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, Gottheimer opposed the deal, but does not advocate dismantling it now with the agreement in place. Instead he favors strict implementation, a view that has become doctrine for the minority of Democrats who last year opposed the deal.

Tellingly, that’s the position of three of the six other Jewish Democrats with realistic shots at election next week: Brad Schneider in Illinois, Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Jason Kander, running for the Senate from Missouri. Kustoff, the Memphis Republican, outright opposes the deal. Jamie Raskin, running for the House in Maryland, and Russ Feingold, a Senate candidate in Wisconsin, back the deal.

The election of all seven Jewish contenders would nudge an important metric – where Jewish lawmakers stand on an Israel-related issue – back toward the AIPAC. Last year, 19 of the 28 Jewish lawmakers in both chambers supported the deal and nine opposed it, a balance that did not look good for AIPAC. With the pro-deal Boxer retiring, should all seven Jews vying for Congress be elected, the balance would move to 20 Jewish lawmakers supporting the agreement and 14 who would have opposed it. Also, an anti-deal lawmaker, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will be leading the party in the Senate.


Jacky Rosen: From the synagogue to the house

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the minority leader with a reputation for hardball, is retiring and as one of his legacies, he wants his state to look a little bluer.

Once Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, announced his candidacy for Reid’s Senate seat, the outgoing senator seized upon Heck’s district, the 3rd, comprising Las Vegas suburbs, as an opportunity. Republicans were backing Danny Tarkanian, a businessman and son of the late legendary basketball coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Jerry Tarkanian. Reid wanted name recognition.

But Reid couldn’t persuade local luminaries to contest the swing seat, and he didn’t like the crop of unknowns who were vying for it. So he settled on Jacky Rosen, an unknown he liked. A software developer, her sole public office was president of Ner Tamid in Henderson, a Reform synagogue that is the largest shul in the region.

With Reid’s backing, she handily won the primary. Her candidacy seemed the kind of stretch that plays out on political satires like “Veep” and, well, presidential elections in 2016. She avoided hard issues, preferring buzzy words like “empowerment.” She touted her synagogue’s conversion to solar energy as a qualification for office.


In Chicago: Tag, you’re it.

In 2010, Bob Dold, a moderate Republican, succeeded Mark Kirk, another moderate Republican who ascended to the Senate, in Illinois’ 10th District comprising Chicago’s northern suburbs. In 2012, Brad Schneider, a centrist Democrat, took the seat from Dold. In 2014, Dold took it back from Schneider.

This year, Schneider wants to return the favor. As in 2012, Schneider hopes to capitalize on larger Democratic turnout in presidential election years.

Both candidates are close to the pro-Israel community. Dold has visited the country multiple times as a congressman and as a candidate, and has taken the lead on pro-Israel legislation. Schneider, who is Jewish, has been active locally and nationally with AIPAC.

Both candidates opposed the Iran nuclear deal. Schneider’s vocal opposition cost him liberal Jewish support in the primary this year, although he won that election. Schneider not only opposed the deal, he flew to Washington to attend the March 2015 speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposing the deal  – a speech that infuriated much of the Democratic caucus.


Jamie Raskin: No atheist

Jamie Raskin, the Maryland state senator likely to win Maryland’s 8th District next week has the endorsement of Our Revolution, the movement established by Bernie Sanders in the wake of his candidacy, and of J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group. Not so surprising, given that Maryland’s suburbs of Washington covered by the 8th are a liberal enclave: Of the nine candidates who vied in the Democratic primary, three were endorsed by J Street. None had the backing of more centrist pro-Israel groups.

Raskin is not an atheist — ough an atheist political action committee, the Freethought Equality Fund, claimed him as one of their own and said he would be the first “nontheist” in Congress. Raskin, telling The Washington Post that he is “emphatically” Jewish – he attends Temple Sinai in the District – said the PAC apparently confused his embrace of “small h” humanism with the capital H movement.

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