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GOP sweep makes one Jew a star, unseats and disempowers many others

WASHINGTON – A historic Republican sweep of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday has propelled Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, to the verge of becoming the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in U.S. political history.

“We are excited for Eric Cantor to become the next House Majority leader,” said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The highest-ranking Jew to ever serve in the House!”

Cantor, however, remains the exception: The fortunes of Jewish politicians in the United States for decades have risen and fallen with the Democrats, and Tuesday night was no exception.

The Republican sweep, picking up at least 60 House seats — the greatest swing since 1938 — and sharply reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate, drove at least six Jewish lawmakers out of office, with one of them a congressman losing his bid for the Senate.

The night’s Jewish losers included Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the Senate’s most dogged civil libertarian, beloved by liberals for his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War and expansion of government powers of interrogation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Feingold, in his concession, quoted another Great Plains Jew, Bob Dylan, who contemplated in “Mississippi” a difficult life well spent: “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.” Feingold then punctuated the lyric with, “On to the next fight!” to cheers from his supporters.

All told, Jewish representation in Congress dropped from 44 to 40, with 27 Jews in the House and 12 in the Senate. One loss in the Senate was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who had been defeated in the primaries. Additionally, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who by Wednesday morning appeared to be on the cusp of a narrow re-election victory, does not list a religion but notes that his mother is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor.

The defeat of five Jewish incumbents, however, just hints at what this election could mean for Jewish access in Washington.

Since a sweep by Democrats in 2006, lawmakers with strong ties to the Jewish community had chaired some of the most powerful committees in the House. Committee chairmen, by determining agendas, hold almost unchallengeable power to advance or kill legislation.

With Republicans having taken the house, those lawmakers, all Democrats, lose their chairmanships. They include Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who heads the Banking Committee; Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Commerce and Energy committee; Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

Furthermore, Jewish groups — most but not all of which are bound up with Washington’s liberal-Democratic establishment — will see several veteran lawmakers with whom they have built years-long relationships exiting Congress. The most pronounced example is Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), who chaired the Budget Committee, which works with the White House to set spending priorities. Spratt’s office had an open door for Jewish social service lobbyists.

The benefit of such access often is subtle but valuable. Berman, for example, was a loyal Democrat who kept Iran sanctions at bay for as long as the White House hoped to coax Tehran into dialogue. As soon as the White House gave the green light, however, Berman was ready with a far-reaching bill that targeted Iran’s energy and banking sectors, and that was shaped in part with counsel from the pro-Israel community.

Such access will hardly disappear in a GOP Congress. Berman is likely to be replaced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has cultivated close ties with the pro-Israel community and was a leader in advancing pro-Israel legislation when Republicans previously controlled the House. Jewish social-service officials say Cantor has been a sympathetic ear on their issues. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader poised to become speaker, has deep ties with his state’s active Jewish community.

The certainty of such access, however, is less clear in a Congress shaped to a great degree by the Tea Party movement and its agenda of across-the-board budget-cutting. Cantor already has said he intends to end earmarks, the discretionary funding derided as “pork” but favored by Jewish groups as a conduit for funding programs for the elderly.

Cantor and Boehner also have vowed to repeal the health-care reform enacted this year.

“I believe that when we take majority in January, I hope that we’re able to put a repeal bill on the floor right away because that’s what the American people want,” Cantor told CBS News after the victory.

Republicans are not likely to overcome a presidential veto, but the threat is bound to make uneasy a Jewish social-service establishment that sees in the legislation, however cumbersome, reforms critical to bringing down health-care costs.

Cantor and Boehner are now set to ride a conservative tiger energized by the greatest midterm victory in decades, and spurred by leaders like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who already on election night was urging the new lawmakers to challenge the Republican “establishment.”

“These Republicans know one thing,” DeMint told supporters at his victory party in Greenville, S.C. “If they don’t do what they say this time, not only are they out, but the Republican Party is dead, and it should be.”

In the face of such sentiment, it is unclear to what degree the GOP leadership will be willing to countenance Jewish organizational urgings to tread softly on budget matters.

A bright spot for the Jewish community was the election in Illinois of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to the open U.S. Senate seat. Kirk not only has been a leader on pro-Israel issues, he is an increasing rarity, and one beloved by Jewish donors who hanker for bipartisanship: a Republican moderate on social issues.

Pro-Israel officials already have fretted about Cantor’s proposal to pull Israel’s $3 billion in defense assistance from the foreign operations package. Such a separation, the officials fear, will make Israel vulnerable to charges of special treatment and could make the generous package a matter of debate. Rand Paul, a Tea Party Republican elected Kentucky’s senator, already has said he will seek cuts in defense spending.

It has yet to be seen how a GOP-led Congress will affect the peace process or efforts to get Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Foreign policy traditionally has been the prerogative of the president, but Congress is able to play an obstructionist role by exacting tough oversight on foreign spending.

Cantor in a pre-election interview told JTA that $500 million in spending for the Palestinian Authority would be subject to new scrutiny, and could depend on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

In the House, four Jewish Democrats were defeated: Reps. Alan Grayson and Ron Klein of Florida, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin, and John Adler of New Jersey. Grayson, who won in 2008 against an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, represents a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican. Since his election he had emerged as one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the Republicans, accusing the party of wanting the uninsured to die. Outside groups poured money into negative campaign ads taking aim at Grayson.

Klein, swept in with the Democratic majority in 2006, lost a swing seat to Allen West, an Iraq War veteran. Klein was a leader on pro-Israel issues, particularly related to Iran sanctions.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) lost his bid to win his state’s open U.S. Senate seat; so did another Jewish Democrat, Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.

Jews did pick up a few seats. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general and a Democrat, won the Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Democrat David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., won the House race to succeed Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who also is retiring. Cicilline brings to three the number of openly gay Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill, joining Frank and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) appeared set to keep her Tucson area seat. Giffords, married to Mark Kelly, the first astronaut to join his twin, Scott, on a space station, beat back a challenge in part by distancing herself from Obama’s more liberal immigration policies.

Pro-Israel money helped incumbent friends of Israel pull off narrow victories. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, rallied against tough challenges, and by Wednesday morning it appeared that Bennet and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were on their way to winning as well. All four had been targeted for assistance by pro-Israel fund-raisers.

So had Democrat Jack Conway, who faced Paul in Kentucky in a race so bitter that Paul refused to mention Conway in his victory speech. Paul, whose father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is a noted isolationist, kept pro-Israel groups at arm’s length during his campaign.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ousted by Tea Partier Joe Miller, appeared to be on her way to keeping her seat in a historic write-in campaign — one backed by NORPAC, one of the largest pro-Israel political action committees, in a last-minute fund-raising appeal.

J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobbying group, scored 0 for 3 in its Senate endorsements but appeared to do relatively well in its 58 House endorsements. The question is whether those successes will help push back a full-frontal campaign by groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition to depict J Street associations as poison at the polls.

J Street’s endorsee in the signature race for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Joe Sestak, lost to Republican Pat Toomey — but by a razor-thin margin.

Jewish groups also are watching closely how this election will impact social issues. For example, the Reform movement, among other groups, supports a repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay members of the military. With conservatives in Iowa ousting three judges who ruled gay marriage constitutional in a rare recall election, such initiatives may be headed for deep freeze.

Jews won a number of statewide races. Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and Democratic Party chairman, and Josh Mandel, a Republican state legislator, Orthodox Jew, and Iraq War veteran, won their races for Massachusetts and Ohio state treasurer, respectively. Also, Sam Olens, a Republican, was elected Georgia’s attorney general.

JTA

 
 

First sign of the new U.S. political reality — Bibi’s swagger

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Randy Altschuler, right, a Republican who holds a slim lead in his suburban New York congressional district, campaigned this summer with Rep. Eric Cantor, at present the only GOP Jewish lawmaker in Congress. Courtesy Randy Altschuler for Congress

WASHINGTON – The sharpest signal of what last week’s elections meant for Jews came not from Washington but from New Orleans, Nova Scotia, and Australia.

In New Orleans, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech Monday calling for moving beyond sanctions to mounting a “credible military threat” against Iran as a means of avoiding war.

News Analysis

“Containment will not work,” Netanyahu said in his address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The prime minister’s remarks echoed the precise terminology used by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in Nova Scotia two days earlier, when he told the Halifax International Security Forum that “containment is off the table.” The likely new majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), referred to a “credible military threat” in the days before the election.

It was a clear sign that Netanyahu feels empowered by the Republican sweep last week of the House of Representatives to trump the Obama administration’s emphasis on peacemaking with the Palestinians with his own priority: confronting Iran.

The emerging gap between Israel and its Republican friends on one side and the White House on the other could presage a repeat of tensions in the late 1990s between Netanyahu, in his first term, and President Clinton — tensions that pro-Israel officials found themselves brokering, often to their discomfiture.

Obama administration officials have indicated that they will not be taking cues from anyone in setting foreign policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Monday in Melbourne, Australia, where he is on an official visit with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivered a rejoinder to Netanyahu’s remarks.

“We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we taking is in fact having an impact in Iran,” Gates said.

Gates’ response implicitly rejected not only an escalation but Netanyahu’s claim that sanctions are not working. It also signaled that the Obama administration was going to protect its foreign policy turf — the traditional White House posture when opponents take one of the houses of Congress.

That was clear already last week when Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s top aides, told sympathetic nongovernmental groups in an off-the-record phone call that the White House would be unwavering — even after losing the House majority — in pressing Israel and the Palestinians to return to the peace talks.

“The president has made it very clear that he is committed to doing whatever he can to foster talks in the Middle East,” said Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser for public engagement. “That’s not a partisan issue; his commitment to that is unwavering.”

But Netanyahu, speaking at the federations’ General Assembly, expressed confidence that he had U.S. backing in resisting Palestinian demands. He listed a number of items the Palestinian Authority is seeking, including a freeze on Jewish west bank settlement activity and a final-status deal that would remove Israeli forces from the west bank.

Netanyahu, however, told the crowd in New Orleans that Israel would stay in the Jordan Valley, the eastern part of the west bank, “for the foreseeable future.” The audience applauded.

“The Palestinians may think they can avoid negotiations,” Netanyahu said. “They may think that the world will dictate Palestinian demands to Israel. I firmly believe that will not happen because I am confident that friends of Israel, led by the United States, will not let that happen.”

GOP love for Israel

Beyond the ramping up of Iran rhetoric, the first signal that new Republican members who swept into office last week were going to make Israel a priority came from Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed candidate in Florida who romped to victory in the race for that state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Rubio, 39, the son of Cuban exiles, punctuated five days of celebrations with a trip to Israel with his wife. He left Sunday on the private trip, which will include holy sites. Rubio, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Southern Baptist, plans an official visit after assuming his seat, a campaign official told the French news agency AFP.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which for decades has managed to secure the support of the leadership of both parties, responded to last week’s elections with a positive message.

“It is abundantly clear that the 112th Congress will continue America’s long tradition of staunch support for a strong, safe, and secure Israel and an abiding friendship between the United States and our most reliable ally in the Middle East,” AIPAC said in a statement. “Many of the strongest friends and supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship were re-elected on Tuesday.”

The statement named Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the once and future Senate majority leader, and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio), likely to become the House speaker; Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is losing the speakership and is vying to become minority leader along with Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and Cantor, who is vying for majority leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, also is a staunch Israel supporter but was not up for re-election last week.

Backing Democrats, growing unease with Obama

Exit polls showed Jewish support for Democrats remained strong, although commensurate with other recent polling showing increased misgivings about President Obama over his economic policies.

J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group, conducted the only national exit poll. It showed that 66 percent of Jews supported Democrats in congressional elections, compared with 31 percent for Republicans. An American Jewish Committee poll conducted in September and October showed 57 percent of Jewish respondents supporting Democrats vs. 33 percent for Republicans. The numbers are sharply down from the 78 percent of Jews who voted for Obama in 2008, according to exit polling.

The J Street poll was conducted by Gerstein/Agne Strategic Communications on Election Day, Nov. 2, and surveyed 1,000 voters who identified as Jews as part of a broader consumer panel. It had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Jim Gerstein, the pollster, is on J Street’s advisory council.

J Street and Gerstein also conducted an Election Day statewide poll in Pennsylvania, where conservative groups targeted Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) as anti-Israel in part because he was backed by J Street. The J Street poll showed 76 percent of Jews favoring Sestak to 19 percent for the winner, Republican Pat Toomey. The Republican Jewish Coalition also conducted a statewide poll of Jews the same day showing the break favoring Sestak 62 percent to 30 percent.

The difference apparently was that the RJC canvassed only Jews who were affiliated with synagogues. When unaffiliated Jews were polled — as they were in the J Street poll and as they are in AJC’s polls — the gap between Democratic and Republican support widened considerably.

By the numbers

JTA reported last week that Congress lost seven Jews in both houses, and gained two. The gain might be three.

In New York’s 1st Congressional District, a recanvassing of the voting machines erased Republican Randy Altschuler’s 3,400-vote deficit, propelling him to a lead of 392 votes over incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), who represents eastern Long Island.

Neither party was set to declare victory, as counting had yet to begin on 9,000 absentee ballots, but Bishop said Monday that he would demand a hand recount.

Altschuler, who owns a recycling company, would become the second Jewish GOP congressman, joining Cantor. His win would bring the number of Jews to 28 in the House, along with the 12 in the Senate.

A little farther upstate, GOP candidate Nan Hayworth, a physician, ousted Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) from the 19th District. Hayworth is a Lutheran but belongs to a synagogue with her Jewish husband and her two sons, whom she has raised as Jewish. That makes her the mirror image of Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who was elected from his Baltimore-area district in 2006. He is Greek Orthodox but belongs to a synagogue, and with his Jewish wife has raised his children as Jews.

JTA projected a win for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and that became official last Friday night. The victory means a third term for Giffords, who was first elected in the GOP-leaning district in the Democratic sweep of 2006. She embraced tough immigration policies as part of her campaign this year, distancing herself from national Democrats.

Welcoming Blumenthal, Cicilline

The other two new Jewish congressmen are New Englanders: Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), until now the state’s longtime attorney general, and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the mayor of Providence.

Cicilline is the first Jewish Rhode Islander elected to national office, the Providence Journal quoted David Goodwin, a historian of the island’s community, as saying. The state has elected a number of Jews to statewide offices, however, including governors.

Cicilline, whose mother is Jewish and a congregant of Temple Beth-El in Providence, also is the third openly gay male in Congress — and the third openly gay Jewish male in Congress, joining Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). The only openly gay woman in Congress, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), is not Jewish.

Success in the states

As Blumenthal’s election demonstrates, election to statewide office often is a steppingstone to federal office. Count four more such steppingstones on Nov. 2: Jews won statewide races in Massachusetts, Arizona, Georgia, and Ohio.

Republicans Tom Horne in Arizona and Sam Olens in Georgia were elected attorney generals. Both are active in their communities and with the Republican Jewish Coalition.

So is Josh Mandel, a Republican state lawmaker and former Marine who was elected treasurer in Ohio. In Massachusetts, Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also won the treasurer spot.

Pro-Israel insiders in Washington noted that, in different ways, Mandel and Grossman both have been leaders in the effort to sanction Iran and now are positioned to make sure that their states enforce such sanctions. As a lawmaker, Mandel led the effort to divest Ohio from Iran. Grossman, as AIPAC president in the mid-1990s, lobbied for the Iran sanctions passed by Congress at that time.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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