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Making a reservation for the Tea Party, and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

With a little more than a month to go before November’s mid-term elections, a new player has emerged on the field causing ripples in the Republican world and a mix of worry and relief among Democrats.

We speak, of course, of the Tea Party, the grassroots movement of protests that’s been sweeping the nation since early 2009. A number of Tea Party candidates have fared well in recent Republican primary elections, beating out GOP-favored opponents.

Most notably, Tea Party candidate Joe Miller upset Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary for her Senate seat, and Christine O’Donnell beat out GOP-favored U.S. Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary last month.

“The national Tea Party movement is the embodiment of political activism,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) said in a statement to The Jewish Standard. “Based on the results of recent primary elections, it’s hard to deny the influence the Tea Party movement has had on politics the last year. If the past is any indication of things to come, there is no doubt in my mind that the Tea Party movement will have an impact on the elections in November and beyond.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood-based Israel political action committee NORPAC and a registered Republican, believes the Tea Party candidates are too far to the right to win in the general elections. While NORPAC focuses solely on candidates’ records on Israel, the Tea Party has put forward a cast of unknown candidates that has made life more difficult for the PAC to quickly determine their positions.

“Sometimes people are overly enthusiastic and trend toward candidates unvetted and poorly qualified,” he said.

The Tea Party victory in the Delaware primary has assured Democrat Chris Coons a victory in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden, according to Chouake. Castle, a former two-term governor, was the GOP’s best hope at winning the open seat, he said.

“The likelihood of the Senate switching majorities in this cycle has become slim because of the influence of the Tea Party in the Senate primaries,” Chouake said.

Tea Partier Sharron Angle, a former Nevada state representative, won the GOP nomination to face Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in November, which, in Chouake’s opinion, almost guarantees the senator a victory.

“Sharron Angle is probably the weakest candidate in the field, at least according to the polls,” Chouake said. “While we’re neutral on the Tea Party issues, we’re happy to see Harry Reid has this best chance at re-winning his seat because he’s a good friend on U.S.-Israel relations.”

Reid visited Englewood on Sunday for a NORPAC fund-raising event — closed to the press — that drew about 30 people and raised between $25,000 and $30,000 for the senator’s re-election bid.

“On our issue he’s tremendously supportive,” Chouake said. “He has a deep understanding of the problems the Jews have had throughout history.”

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Reid is confident in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to win a peace agreement because he has support from Israel’s left and right wings, Chouake said.

Regarding Iran, Chouake said that Reid preferred to avoid military action but all options had to remain on the table because a nuclear Iran is the worst-case scenario.

Earlier this week, Senate Republicans blocked Democrat-sponsored legislation that would have overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A 56-43 vote defeated a $726 billion defense spending bill that included a pay raise for troops and a repeal of the controversial policy that blocks openly gay soldiers from serving.

Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. Reid voted against the bill, citing a Senate rule that allows him to reintroduce the legislation later if he votes with the majority.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) condemned Republicans for blocking the legislation. “This bill provides our military with new equipment and authorizes pay and health programs for our brave men and women,” he said in a statement. “This bill would also authorize the long overdue repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ No American should be barred from serving in our military simply because of their sexual orientation.”

 
 

Jewish officials flex muscles ahead of possible GOP wins

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Rand Paul, shown speaking at a rally in Paducah, Ky., on April 10, is among the Tea Party-backed candidates who could have a major impact on social services spending if he is elected to the U.S. Senate, some Jewish officials say. Gage Skimore

WASHINGTON – Across the United States, Jewish community professionals are honing their skills of suasion, preparing to deal with a new crop of lawmakers who are unfamiliar with Jewish organizational priorities — and who are likely to be unenthusiastic once they’re in the know.

This season of anti-incumbent sentiment, much of it swelling from the political right, presents the likelihood of a Republican takeover of at least one house of Congress. The GOP needs 39 seats to win in the House of Representatives; pollsters are predicting gains of 17 to 80 seats.

The Tea Party insurgency has pushed past the GOP primaries a crop of candidates who have never held political office. Many of the freshmen are likely to arrive in Washington sharing their party’s warmth for Israel, but knowing little about the Jewish state or U.S. domestic issues that Jewish federations traditionally champion — elderly care, poverty relief, and other community services.

“In the Tea Party, the concern to dismantle government is very strong and, for better or worse, the Jewish community has prospered and gotten used to involved government, grants, social services, government aid to Israel,” said Marshall Breger, the Reagan administration liaison to the Jewish community who teaches law at Catholic University. “Once they start cutting, it’s going to be hard to make exceptions.”

The strategy, said Joyce Garver Keller, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, a group that lobbies for the state’s federations, is to make friends now to prepare for more nuanced meetings after January.

“The first purpose is to make a friend, not to come cold in January,” Keller said of her initial outreach to fresh Republican candidates, who have proliferated in her state. Ohio has a disproportionate amount of toss-up elections that could unseat Democrats.

In the meetings she has with candidates, Keller outlines broad areas of concern, leading with support for Israel and the need to confront Iran over its suspected nuclear program, and then explaining Jewish community backing for safety net spending.

She anticipates a long learning curve in a number of cases.

“We have people running who have never been to Israel, and even if they have a position paper they don’t grasp that it’s more than a war zone,” Keller said.

In some cases the learning curve may be insurmountable.

Hours after Keller spoke with JTA on Friday, The Atlantic magazine revealed that Rich Iott, a Tea Party-backed candidate in the Toledo area, for years had spent weekends dressing up as an SS officer as a member of a group that re-enacted Nazi maneuvers.

Iott, who has never held public office, seemed baffled that anyone was taking offense, even after the national Republican Party made him politico non grata.

“Never, in any of my re-enacting of military history, have I meant any disrespect to anyone who served in our military or anyone who has been affected by the tragedy of war, especially the Jewish community,” he said in a statement.

Iott was an extreme example but across the country, community outreach officials fretted at a political demographic that hasn’t had much overlap with Jews.

Matt Goldberg, the Jewish Community Relations Council director in Louisville, Ky., said he was worried that spending reductions would result in cuts to security and social programs for seniors.

National officials forecast a grim winter, noting threats by incumbent Tea Party-backed GOP senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to dry up spending. Despite overtures by top Jewish officials, DeMint will not budge, insiders said.

If DeMint and Coburn are joined by another handful of hard-liners, they could muster the power to bring government to a halt, using the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules that grant even lone senators sweeping powers to gum up legislation.

“If you have Rand Paul in Kentucky, if you have Sharron Angle in Nevada, if you have Joe Miller in Alaska, you can have a tremendous impact on social services,” said one official, referring to three races where budget-slashing Tea Party-backed candidates are competitive.

Of concern are possible cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, programs seen as vital to sustaining food and medical assistance to the poor and the elderly.

“One of the things we’ve been working on with local JCRCs is looking at the most vulnerable populations, the new people in poverty,” said Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the JCRC umbrella that is a partner in the interfaith Fighting Poverty with Faith campaign. “Certainly a lot of the service agencies are feeling the brunt of this.”

One frustration for Jewish officials has been the demonization of “earmarks,” the district-specific spending widely derided as “pork” by conservatives. Earmarks fund an array of programs favored by Jewish groups, including naturally occurring retirement communities, the jewel in the federation system crown, and grants that enhance security at Jewish institutions.

Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition director, downplayed talk of a GOP takeover — but he also said Republican policies would not place at risk safety nets now funded by earmarks.

“Perhaps there will be a different vehicle and a different level of accountability,” said Brooks, who last week oversaw a rollout of a $1 million ad campaign targeting Jewish voters in key states. The campaign includes attacks on what the RJC says are Obama’s economic policy failures.

Robin Schatz, the director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said she had been making the case for earmarks to Pat Toomey, the conservative Republican running for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

“I told Pat, ‘Earmarks are not a four-letter word. If you are elected, we’re going to sit down and have a substantive talk about this,’” she said. “I think he has substantive reasons. You don’t want to see bridges to nowhere — in the Jewish community we want transparency, too — but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Toomey, who served previously in the House, at least is approachable and has strong relations with Pennsylvania Jews. In Kentucky, Goldberg has yet to communicate with Paul, who bested the establishment-backed Trey Grayson, who had close ties to the state’s Jews.

“Suddenly we’re confronted with Rand Paul, and he’s an unknown in the community,” Goldberg said.

Grayson is from Louisville, where there are 10,000 Jews. Paul is from Bowling Green, which has only a handful of Jews. Goldberg said he had tried to get in touch with Paul but had yet to find a Jewish intermediary.

Instead he’s only heard third-hand that the candidate is “more pro-Israel” than his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has one of the House’s worst pro-Israel records. Goldberg said he was counting in part on pro-Israel evangelicals in the state to make Israel’s case.

Keller said difficulties in establishing relationships are typical of rural districts.

“In Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus, the Jewish community has visibility,” she said of her state. “When you go outside those cities, it is rare for the candidate to even have Jewish friends.”

They key may be to go outside those cities: In Minnesota, in addition to hosting a JCRC gubernatorial debate, Jewish officials traveled to events like the Aug. 4 FarmFest debate in rural Redwood Falls in the state’s southwest, said Ethan Roberts, the director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program.

When she scores a meeting, Keller said, she probes whether the candidate has a beloved relative — a grandparent, an uncle — in a nursing home. She then talks about the Jewish emphasis on caring for the elderly and uses, and explains, Yiddishisms like “bubbe” and “zayde,” which she finds candidates enjoy hearing.

Months later, at an initial meeting in a congressional office, she will return to the issue, recalling the lawmaker’s beloved relative — and tie it in to her agenda.

“It’s trying to personalize these billion-dollar issues that are numbers on a budget and talk to them about the safety net,” Keller said.

Another area of concern is funding for Israel, despite broad GOP enthusiasm for the Jewish state.

Keller said candidates often don’t realize until they get to Washington that Israel’s $3 billion in annual defense assistance is part of a $25 billion international assistance package — one the Obama administration hopes to double within the next two years.

“You get a lot of people who get into office who say I like aid for Israel, but …,” she said.

Backing the entire foreign assistance package has long been a sine qua non of pro-Israel support. Pro-Israel groups wince at conservative proposals to separate Israel funding because they say it smacks of a “special case” status they’d rather not have.

Conservatives object to programs that fund family planning overseas, as well as aid for countries where governments do not vote with the United States in the United Nations and do not have democratic governments.

Joel Pollak, a rare Jewish Tea Party-backed candidate hoping to oust Rep. Jan Schakowsy (D-Ill.) from her suburban Chicago seat, said the likelihood was that a Republican Congress would tweak foreign aid.

“I think it will be discriminating foreign aid,” he said. “There will less foreign aid to countries that do not honor human rights and sponsor terrorism.”

JTA

 
 

Unifying factor in 2010 election: Never before

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Tea Partiers rally against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid March 27 in the Senate majority leader’s hometown of Searchlight. Mark Holloway

WASHINGTON – Talk to veteran campaign watchers about this year’s congressional races, and within seconds they will tell you that they’ve never before seen elections quite like these.

“We’ve never seen a cycle where there’s been this many races this close to an election and you don’t know how it’s going to come out,” said Joy Malkus, the research director at the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, or JACPAC, a group that directs funding to candidates who are pro-Israel and moderate on social issues. “And I’ve been doing this since 1982.”

Dr. Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee, agreed.

“This one has taken twists and turns that surprise almost all of us that follow these events,” said Chouake, who lives in Englewood. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been doing this — in my lifetime.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the rules of the Jewish fund-raising road remain the same: Stick with your friends and get to know unknowns as fast as possible.

In fact, the only change might be to append a “more-so”: There are many more friends at risk, and there are a lot more unknowns. An anti-incumbent surge already has had an impact in the primaries, ousting a clutch of incumbents in the Senate, where races generally are much more expensive than in the House of Representatives.

“The thing that has created the greatest demand for money in the pro-Israel world are all these open Senate seats,” said Lonny Kaplan, a veteran pro-Israel giver who is based in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs and is a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A greater demand and, according to insiders, a surprisingly greater supply, considering the economy’s narrow straits. Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he has never seen money flowing like this in a non-presidential election year.

“This is the largest effort our leaders have made in a midterm — ever,” he said.

Here are some races to watch in this very watchable season:

Endangered incumbents: The triumvirate

A number of pro-Israel incumbents are at risk in the Senate. Some already have been or are almost being written off, among them U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Others at risk are rallying in the final weeks and have attracted a late burst of pro-Israel attention, including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Reid, the majority leader, is facing a tough challenge from Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed Republican challenger. Reid is considered critical by the pro-Israel community because he has taken the lead in helping to shepherd through Iran sanctions legislation. He’s also seen as having advanced pro-Israel defenses, most recently in a letter with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pressing President Obama to designate the Turkish group behind the Gaza Strip aid flotilla as terrorist.

If Reid goes, and if the Senate changes hands, its pro-Israel cast is not likely to change: McConnell is also solidly pro-Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the chamber’s most stalwart Israel defender (and a Jew from Brooklyn), likely would replace Reid.

Yet pro-Israel insiders say it remains a priority to keep in place a party leader who has been a proven champion of Israel.

“I’ve worked very hard for Harry Reid’s campaign, and the pro-Israel community has been very, very supportive of him,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very tough race. From my perspective we have a very friendly incumbent — it’s not hard to pick a side there.”

Boxer, a Jewish candidate who is facing former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is likewise considered important because of the recent trend among liberal Democrats to question Israeli policies.

“She’s very liberal but also a leader,” said a donor who is close to top Democrats and did not want to be further identified. “She puts her name on pro-Israel legislation.”

Getting to know you: the Tea Partiers

Reid’s race is also considered critical also because he is facing Angle, who like most of the candidates backed by the Tea Party movement is friendly to Israel but also seeks budget cuts across the board. That makes her anathema to groups like JACPAC that are concerned about social services.

The Tea Party also makes some pro-Israel conservatives nervous because some in the movement want to slash foreign funding, although they have promised to work out a way to maintain funding for Israel. Some say that reveals a misunderstanding of the holistic nature of foreign aid: If aid is cut across the board, it signals an isolationism that can only harm Israel in the long run even if it benefits from short-term exceptions.

“The pro-Israel community has the challenge of keeping up foreign aid overall” if Tea Party candidates score major successes, said an insider associated with AIPAC.

That effort to keep up foreign aid already is under way, and pro-Israel insiders report warm conversations with Angle in addition to Mike Lee, the Republican candidate in Utah whose Tea Party insurgency unseated longtime incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett, and Ken Buck, who is challenging Colorado’s Bennet.

Other Tea Party candidates have kept their distance from the pro-Israel community. They include Senate hopefuls Joe Miller, a Republican who is leading in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky.

Paul’s association with his father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose isolationist polices have resulted in one of the worst pro-Israel records in the House, as well as the younger Paul’s reluctance to parry outside of his inner circle, have conferred upon his opponent, Democrat Jack Conway, the rare status of favored pro-Israel candidate in an open race. The pro-Israel donor community as a rule attempts to split the difference in such races, not wishing to alienate either side.

“Conway has great position papers on all of our issues — Israel, [reproductive] choice, and separation of church and state,” JACPAC’s Malkus said. “Rand Paul is not good on any of our issues.”

Unlikely challenges to incumbents — and unlikely incumbent

House Democrats facing challenging races across the country fall into two categories: Those who just months ago were seen as sure bets, and those who beat the odds to win in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats scored victories over a weakened Republican Party. In 2008, those underdog Democrats were buoyed by voters enthusiastic about presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A typical candidate who used to be seen as safe but now is in jeopardy is Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who defeated his current opponent, Republican Allen West, by 10 points in 2008. Klein has strongly supported Israel in a heavily Jewish district that includes patches of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

West, however, has posed a formidable challenge this time, in part by linking Klein to a president perceived as less friendly to Israel than his predecessors, and in part because of anxieties among retirees over reports that Obama’s health-care reform will suck funds from Medicare, the government-funded insurance plan for retirees. An African-American Iraq war veteran, West also has an Achilles’ heel: Most recently he was associated with a biker gang that does not admit Jews or blacks as members.

Another Florida Jewish congressman is typical of the other column. In 2008, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), facing an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, swept in in a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican.

Grayson, one of the most outspoken critics nationwide of the Republicans, is now in trouble, with outside Republican-affiliated groups pouring money into negative campaign ads. He has offset the blitz by raising four times as much as his Republican opponent, Daniel Webster, in individual donations, stemming from the joy his politically incorrect broadsides bring the Democratic base.

Grayson has accused Republicans of wanting the uninsured to die. Nonpartisan campaign watchers criticized Grayson recently for a TV ad that edited remarks to make Webster appear as if he were endorsing New Testament commands that wives should submit to their husbands. In fact, Webster was advising Christian fathers that they should ignore the commandments in question.

Which pro-Israel are you?

Two major campaigns have split the pro-Israel community: Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) vs. Alex Giannoulias for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) vs. Pat Toomey for the open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

JACPAC is backing Sestak because of the organization’s twin missions of supporting Israel and moderate social policies. Toomey, Malkus notes, voted against foreign aid more often than not when he was a congressman in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On the other hand, Sestak has been targeted by right-wing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel for his associations with the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street.

By and large, however, J Street associations have not figured large in the campaign, said Kaplan, who is backing the Democratic incumbent Rush Holt in New Jersey.

JACPAC is staying out of the Kirk-Giannoulias race because of Kirk’s leadership role on pro-Israel issues in the House and his record as a Republican moderate. NORPAC’s Choauake referred to Kirk’s seminal role in shaping the enhanced Iran sanctions legislation that passed over the summer.

“He’s brilliant and hard working; he’s a mover and a shaker, “ he said of Kirk. “He can get stuff done — he knows how to strategize to get to the finish line.”

Races to watch? Try people to watch

Pro-Israel and Jewish money sometimes goes to candidates not because they need it, but because the community sees a future with the person in question.

That’s the case with Kelly Ayotte, a Republican leading in the open race for New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seat, and Chris Coons, a Democrat in the same position in Delaware.

Ayotte “is someone who’s going to get into the Senate and do well,” Chouake said. “She’s been supported by Democratic and Republican governors as attorney general, which means she must be highly respected. She’s going to be a prime candidate for [the] executive branch if they’re looking for a young Republican woman.”

Coons, until now a little-known county executive, is also respected, said the pro-Israel insider close to Democrats.

“He’s very much up on the issues, very foreign policy attuned,” the insider said. “He pronounced [the name of Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad correctly.”

Reach out to the outreachers

Asked why he was backing Ayotte in the New Hampshire Senate race instead of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a Jewish congressman with a solid-pro-Israel voting record, NORPAC’S Chouake’s answer was simple: “She called me. He didn’t.” JTA

 
 
 
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