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Health-care vote could mean tough campaign for some Dems

WASHINGTON – A window was shattered by a pellet gun in an apparent vandalism attack at her Tucson district office. Sarah Palin has put her on the list of Democratic lawmakers she is targeting this fall. Arizona Tea Party activists are pledging to help defeat her bid for re-election.

All this because Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) voted for health-care reform.

Giffords is one of a few Jewish Democrats political observers say could have a difficult re-election campaign because of her vote for the controversial Democratic-backed health-care bill.

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A glass door at the Tucson office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shattered in an apparent vandalism attack just hours after Giffords voted for the health-care reform bill in Congress. Gary Jones

The bill passed March 21 would provide access to insurance for more than 30 million uninsured Americans, provide subsidies for those who cannot afford it, eliminate the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and require all Americans to buy insurance or pay a tax. Republicans have attacked the bill as too costly and portray it as government takeover of the health-care industry.

While support for the health-care bill represents a potential political liability if disaffection with the president runs high on Election Day, November is still far enough away that it’s not clear how much influence it will have.

The general mood of the country, which probably will depend on the state of the economy, will likely be the determining factor, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. If the mood is sour, he said, voters “are going to evaluate health care in that light.”

Two-term congresswoman Giffords is in a more vulnerable spot than most. She hasn’t been in office long, and her district is not solidly Democratic. John McCain won it in the 2008 presidential election, with 52 percent of the district vote.

Helping those who cannot afford health insurance, rather than focusing on re-election, was Gifford’s paramount concern in deciding which way to vote, her spokesman said.

“The congresswoman is convinced it was the right thing to do, and good for the country,” said her communications director, C.J. Karamargin.

Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who has been particularly outspoken on health-care issues, is another potentially vulnerable Jewish Democrat. Grayson has called the U.S. health-care system a “holocaust” — making him a darling of the left but a target of the right.

Grayson unseated a four-term Republican in 2008 to win the 8th congressional district in Florida, which includes part of Orlando. While President Obama carried the district in 2008, George W. Bush carried it in the prior two presidential races.

National Jewish Democratic Council CEO Ira Forman acknowledged that votes in favor of health-care reform could be problematic for Jewish Democrats like Giffords and Grayson, but he is “doubtful it will be the determinative vote” for an incumbent’s prospects of survival this fall.

Victory on a historic reform of health care “is much better for Democrats in general” than a defeat, Forman said. However, the larger issues of the economy and the unemployment rate are likely to be greater factors for vulnerable Democrats come election time, he said.

The only Jewish Democrat to vote against the health-care bill was New Jersey first-termer John Adler, who also is likely to face a tough battle in November. Hailing from a district in the Philadelphia suburbs, Adler will be facing off against former Philadelphia Eagles lineman John Runyan.

Adler said he did not back the legislation because it didn’t do enough to control costs and make health care affordable for his constituents. He also reportedly had encountered strong opposition to the bill at meetings throughout his district.

Obama carried Adler’s district by five points in 2008, but Bush eked out a slight win in 2004. Before Adler, the district’s congressional seat was held by a Republican for 16 years.

Adler’s vote will make it easier for him to argue that he is “not a rubber stamp” for the president.

The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, agreed that the health-care bill is likely to be a big issue in the 2010 election. The RJC has called for repealing the bill.

More upsetting than the bill itself, Brooks said, is that, “with an exploding debt and deficit, the president is focusing not on jobs but on health care.”

Meanwhile, at least one Jewish Republican challenger is hoping that his opposition to the health-care reform legislation will help him knock off a Democratic incumbent. Randy Altschuler, a contender for the GOP nomination in New York’s 1st congressional district, which includes much of Suffolk County on Long Island, said he backs repealing the health-care legislation and replacing it with a different type of reform because the “spending, tax increases, and heavy government intervention” outweigh its “marginal benefits.”

Altschuler first must win a tough primary race against Chris Cox, Richard Nixon’s grandson, before being able to square off against incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop.

“That’s a race where these kinds of issues are going to resonate,” Brooks said of the brouhaha over health care.

JTA

 
 

Poll: Obama struggling with Jews, but not on Israel

WASHINGTON – A new survey shows President Obama struggling with American Jews — but not on Israel-related matters.

The American Jewish Committee poll of U.S. Jews found that Obama’s approval rating is at 57 percent, with 38 percent disapproving. That’s down from the stratospheric 79 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama enjoyed about a year ago, in May 2009. The AJC poll was conducted March 2 to 23 and surveyed 800 self-identifying Jewish respondents selected from a consumer mail panel.

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This question, in the American Jewish Committee’s new survey, asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue?” AJC

Obama’s advantage among Jews versus the rest of the population appears to be eroding. The latest Gallup polling shows Obama with a national approval rating of 48, nine points below Jewish polling. Last May, general polling earned him 63 percent approval, 16 points below Jewish polling.

Despite the drop — and weeks of tensions with the Netanyahu government — Obama still polls solidly on foreign policy, with a steady majority backing his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to the AJC poll.

It is on domestic issues that the president appears to be facing more unhappiness.

Jewish voters are statistically split on how Obama has handled health-care reform, with 50 percent approving and 48 disapproving. On the economy he fares slightly better. Jewish voters who favor his policies stand at 55 percent, while 42 percent disapprove.

The last AJC poll on the views of American Jews, released in September, did not address domestic issues, so there’s no measure to assess any change in support on the specific issues of health and the economy. Indeed, this is the first poll in at least 10 years in which the AJC has attempted to assess views on the economy and health care. However, Jewish voters in solid majorities describe themselves as Democrats and as liberal to moderate in their views, and traditionally list the economy and health care as their two top concerns in the voting booth.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the relatively low score on domestic issues underscored what he said was a steady decline in Democratic support among Jewish voters.

“This indicates a serious erosion of support,” he said. “It’s a huge drop. There’s no silver lining” for Democrats.

Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, countered that the poll did not account for Jewish voters who might be disappointed with Obama from a more liberal perspective — for instance, over his dropping from the reform bill of the so-called public option, which would have allowed for government-run health care.

Additionally, much of the AJC polling took place before Obama’s come-from-behind victory on March 21, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed health-care reform, Forman said. Since then, Democrats have said they see a turnaround in the president’s political fortunes. “The narrative was the president was in the tank,” Forman said. “This was when it was thought his initiative was dead.”

Obama fares strongly with Jews on homeland security, with 62 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving — a sign that Republican attempts to cast Obama as weak on protecting the nation have had little impact in the Jewish community.

He also scores 55 percent approval on how he handles U.S.-Israel relations, which is virtually unchanged since last September, when his handling of the relationship scored 54 percent approval. At that juncture, the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem were kept at a low bubble and were confined to U.S. insistence on a total freeze of Israeli settlement and the Netanyahu administration’s reluctance to concede.

The latest questions, however, coincided almost exactly with the period when U.S. officials accused the Netanyahu government of “insulting” the United States by announcing a new building start in eastern Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, and when the president refused to make public gestures of friendship during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent visit to Washington.

A question on Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear capability showed a statistical dead heat on the approval side between last September — 49 percent — and now, at 47 percent. However, disapproval ratings rose moderately, apparently borrowing from the “uncertain” column: Back in September 35 percent disapproved; now 42 percent give a thumbs down.

The marks compared favorably, however, with Bush administration figures. Bush scored 33 percent approval ratings on Iran in 2006, the most recent year that AJC asked the question.

Support for U.S. and Israeli attacks on Iran to keep it from making a nuclear bomb appeared to drop slightly. Asked about a U.S. strike, 53 percent said they would support one and 42 percent were opposed, as opposed to 56 percent and 36 percent in September. On an Israeli strike, 62 percent supported and 33 percent opposed, as opposed to 66 and 28 percent in September.

The only other question in the most recent survey directly addressing Obama’s foreign policy also showed strong support for the president: 62 percent of respondents agreed with Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This contrasts with the consistently negative Jewish assessments of Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, except in the period immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Approval of Obama’s foreign policies contrasts with increasing uneasiness in the Jewish establishment with the administration’s approach. Several influential pro-Israel organizations have spent months, to little avail, pleading with the administration to confine its disagreements to back rooms.

A handful of prominent Jewish backers of candidate Obama also appear to have had second thoughts. Most pointedly, in a New York Daily News column Monday, Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor and a supporter of Obama during the 2008 general election, said he was “weeping” because the president had “abandoned” Israel.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most influential member of the Senate’s Jewish caucus, on Sunday pointedly avoided answering a question on ABC’s “This Week” about whether he agreed with a Netanyahu confidante who said Obama was a “strategic disaster” for Israel. Brooks, the Republican, predicted a tide of defections. “You’ll have a number of candidates” in areas with a strong Jewish presence “asking him not to campaign for them,” he said.

David Harris, AJC’s executive director, cautioned that low approval ratings did not necessarily translate into electoral losses.

Brooks said that he would advise GOP candidates to hammer Democrats hard on foreign policy, particularly in tight races in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where Jewish voters trended less liberal than on the coasts. “If Republican candidates are smart, they will make Democratic candidates in these races answerable to whether they support Obama’s policies of pressuring Israel,” the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition said.

Jewish Democrats are already preparing a response strategy of arguing that the relationship remains close on defense cooperation and other matters, despite heightened rhetoric on settlement differences.

Harris suggested that the polling showed that the American Jewish public would prefer to imagine a closeness rather than deal with tensions. Obama and Netanyahu scored similar solid majorities — 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively — on how they handled the relationship.

American Jews “don’t want to be forced to choose,” Harris said. “They would rather say a blessing on both your houses than a plague on both your houses.”

According to the survey, 64 percent of Jews think Israel should, as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, be willing to remove at least some of the settlements in the west bank. But 61 percent rejected the idea that Israel should be willing to “compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction.”

The poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by the firm Synovate, formerly Market Facts.

 
 

Jewish groups call for civility

WASHINGTON – Americans have witnessed racist epithets, homophobic slurs, and spitting on a congressman in the realm of public discourse. Now a number of Jewish groups are saying enough is enough.

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League issued a call for civility.

The “Statement on Civility in National Public Discourse” was unveiled during a panel discussion on “Restoring Civility to Passionate, Partisan, Political Debate” at the ADL’s National Leadership conference in Washington.

“We stand together today to call for civility in our national public discourse,” the statement says. “Let our debate on the issues of the moment be thoughtful and reasoned. Let us look to our elected leaders for leadership, whether or not we support their policies. Let all of us, across the political spectrum, encourage advocacy that is vigorous; pointed but not personal or hostile. We reject appeals to bigotry, racism, and prejudice. We reject calls to violence. In our national discourse in 2010, let us cast American democracy in the best possible light.”

The ADL call for civility comes on the heels of a similar measure adopted in February focused on combating incivility among Jewish groups, particularly those with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. It was passed in Dallas as part of a resolution at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group bringing together the synagogue movements, local Jewish communities, and several national organizations, including the ADL.

The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, recounted the events that led to his organization’s declaration.

“The level of incivility and debate relating first to the health-care bill and now the immigration debate, the Arizona legislation — it has been a crescendo, a back-and-forth of not discussing things civilly,” he said.

The ADL plans to reach out to its 30 regional offices to bring the pledge to elected leaders to sign in an effort to “lessen hostility in the language of debates,” Foxman said.

The first to sign were Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Matt Brooks, his counterpart at the Republican Jewish Coalition — two groups that have not enjoyed the most cordial of relationships.

The groups even argued as to the wording of the pledge, with Forman not entirely pleased with what he described as the final “watered-down” version. Brooks requested the removal of “mean-spirited” before he would sign, Forman said. Brooks replied that neither the ADL nor the NJDC pushed back over the changes and that his edits “made for a tighter, cleaner, neater document.”

Foxman brushed off the quibble saying, “Yes, people gave input, but ultimately they were signing on to our statement.”

Forman also was willing to shift into a conciliatory mode.

“Congratulations are due to the ADL, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, for we start with this minimal statement and build on it,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the health of democracy and Judaism that we bring back civility in discourse.”

Brooks agreed, saying, “I believe very strongly that we need to vigorously debate issues of the day, but in a way that’s respectful of the political process, that doesn’t engage in racial or religious or ad hominem attacks.”

With most forms of incivility happening in the public eye — at town hall meetings, on the Senate floor — the ADL believes that the media and the public are the best-positioned to police the matter.

Foxman said, “People can argue strongly and passionately about what they believe, and when they realize being uncivil is counterproductive to them and their cause, there will be a positive response.”

The JCPA has particularly focused on the increased heat in recent years among Jewish groups when dealing with Israel, with the rise of pro-Israel groups like J Street that perform open criticism of the Jewish state.

J Street has taken shots at Jews who associate with right-wing Christian evangelicals, saying that they are abetting a movement that imagines Israel’s destruction. More conservative groups have accused J Street of consorting with Israel’s mortal enemies.

“We are experiencing a level of incivility, particularly over issues pertaining to Israel, that has not been witnessed in recent memory,” the JCPA resolution said. “Where such polarization occurs within the Jewish community, it tears at the fabric of Klal Yisrael —our very sense of peoplehood — and is a cause for profound concern.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of JCPA, said that though the details are not yet firm, a committee representing Jews from “left to right” will be put in place by June and will be charged with designing a multi-year plan to combat incivility and teach proper discourse.

“We need to know how to show respect when we agree,” Gutow said, “and when we do not.”

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

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

 
 

Romney, Thune make pitch at RJC retreat

At the Republican Jewish Coalition’s winter leadership retreat in Las Vegas, it was the absence of certain likely candidates for president that had the crowd most excited.

While names like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann generate enthusiasm at some other conservative gatherings, their absence over the weekend here had the Jewish crowd giddy that ahead of the 2012 race, the Republican Party may be retreating from the divisive hyper-conservatives who have frustrated Jewish attraction to the party in recent years.

At this GOP gathering the heroes were probable presidential hopefuls who are likelier to sway Jews from their traditional Democratic home and toward Republican candidates with positions on issues like the economy and foreign policy.

Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, told a questioner that the social issues that have driven Jews away from the Republican Party in the past — abortion, gay rights, church-state separation — were hardly registering now.

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From left, potential GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney chats with Mel Sembler and Sheldon Adelson, major backers of the Republican Jewish Coalition, at the RJC’s winter leadership conference at the Adelson-owned Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas on April 2. Ron Kampeas

“Social issues get a large role in campaigns when there’s not a lot of other issues at the forefront,” he said. Instead, the issues now are America’s economic health and job loss, Brooks said. “That’s what will drive the narrative,” he said.

The economy — and foreign policy, particularly Israel — certainly were the issues driving the narrative at the RJC event.

The two likely candidates to address the audience in the open forum, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, wove both the economy and foreign policy into their challenges to President Obama, whom they and just about everyone else pledged to make a one-term president. Notably, neither man mentioned social issues.

Both lambasted Obama for what they said was the distance he had established between the United States and Israel, breaking with a tradition of decades of closeness.

Romney said Obama’s attempt to appear evenhanded in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led him to “castigate Israel while having nothing to say about thousands of rockets being launched into Israel.”

The Obama administration has, in fact, condemned Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, although its tense exchanges with Netanyahu’s government over settlement-building have received much greater attention in the Jewish community.

Thune said the administration’s emphasis on settlements made it appear that they were the reason peace talks were not advancing while ignoring Arab recalcitrance and the Iranian nuclear threat.

“America’s ally is now and always will be the State of Israel,” he said. “I think the Obama administration sometimes forgets that fundamental fact.”

Thune has said he is not running, but his supporters will not count him out and his appearance at this event and others like it fuels speculation that he may return to the race. Dan Lederman, a Jewish state senator from South Dakota, joked that he had already reserved the VP spot on the Thune ticket.

Romney seemed transformed from his failed 2008 bid for the GOP nomination, when he was faulted for appearing scripted and uncertain in his opinions. He barely consulted a single sheet of notes, and spoke in detail not only on his strengths — health care and budget management — but about the threats facing Israel from Iran and about the peace process.

He subtly cast what he undoubtedly will play as his strength — business and executive experience — into every topic. Obama, he said, does not understand negotiations, a lack that led him to concede too much at the outset to the Russians in negotiating a missile drawdown in Europe.

“He could have gotten a commitment on their part, ‘We will not veto crippling sanctions on Iran,’” a reference to the Republican critique that U.N. sanctions approved last year on Iran were not sufficiently far-reaching. Instead, Romney said, Obama made it clear from the outset that he was willing to end missile defense programs in Poland and the Czech Republic, a key Russian demand.

“The consequence of not understanding negotiations has been extraordinarily difficult,” Romney said.

Romney was relaxed and jokey. Insisting that the tax cuts he would advocate targeted the middle class, he said, “I’m not looking for ways to make rich people richer” — and then added, glancing over at Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and RJC mainstay sitting in the front row, “Sorry, Sheldon.”

He also had a practiced answer on health care, facing a vulnerability that has dogged him until now: The plan he championed in Massachusetts, which reduced emergency room-generated costs by mandating health care, was a model for the plan passed last year by Obama and which Republicans want to repeal.

“Romneycare” was good for Massachusetts, he said, but as president he would not impose it on all 50 states. Later he added, to laughter, addressing Obama: If the president truly modeled his plan on Romney’s, “Why didn’t you call me?”

One questioner asked Romney if, like Donald Trump — another putative GOP candidate — he would fight “scrappy” and not behave as a “gentleman” as he had done in previous campaigns. The reference appeared to be to Trump’s adoption of arguments questioning Obama’s citizenship credentials. Romney was adamant he would not stoop to “innuendo” in a campaign.

The most telling moment in Romney’s appearance was when he called his wife, Ann, to the stage.

“Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she said, referring to their Mormon background. That “another” was a sign of the difficulties that minorities have in assimilating into a party that is still perceived as predominantly white and Christian.

The perception that “Republican and Jewish” is an oxymoron continues to dog the RJC, despite its successes, including upping the Jewish Republican vote from barely 20 percent in 2008 to more than 30 percent in November’s midterms. Much was made of a show of hands of first-timers at the confab — about a third of the room — and speaker after speaker urged them to bring friends and family.

The event was held at Adelson’s palatial Venetian casino hotel, much of it taking place on Shabbat. Observant Jews who attended rushed from services, prayer shawls over their shoulders to events during the day Saturday, dodging oblivious, skimpily dressed cocktail waitresses attending to the crowds.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Democrats launch major pro-Obama pushback among Jews

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Former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, right, shown speaking at Obama inauguration festivities in January 2009 with former Jewish War Veterans chief Ed Goldwasser, is among Democrats speaking out forcefully now on President Obama’s Israel policies. Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON – President Obama is a stalwart friend of Israel.

That’s the message some top Democratic Jewish figures are promoting to push back against the notion that Obama is out of step with the pro-Israel and Jewish communities.

Within the next two weeks, two figures associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — past AIPAC president Amy Friedkin and board member Howard Green — will be among the hosts for a major fundraising event for the president, charging $25,000 per couple. The target of 40 couples — bringing in $1 million — is close to being met, insiders say. Notably, the organizers have received a nod from the AIPAC board’s inner circle to solicit donations.

Last week, top Jewish Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), blitzed the media with Op-Eds denying any split with the president in the wake of his call last month to base Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.

And the White House has taken the unusual step of posting a lengthy defense of Obama’s Israel record on its website.

Some of the Op-Eds were coordinated, insiders said, and meetings will take place over the coming weeks to hammer home the message.

“The White House has a very strong record to defend, and the objectives are misrepresented and in some cases maligned, so yes the White house is pushing back,” said Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the 2008 campaign.

Wexler wrote one of two pro-Obama Op-Eds in the South Florida Sun Sentinel in recent days. Florida, a swing state with a substantual Jewish population, has been a key Jewish battleground in recent years.

Republicans have taken notice, and they have attributed the pushback in part to the success of attacks on the president by conservative groups. The Republican Jewish Coalition has targeted Jewish voters with automated phone calls, and a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel is running an ad thanking congressional Democrats it claims have split with Obama over his Israel policy.

“Clearly, the White House is playing defense after President Obama inserted himself into Middle East policy that put him at odds with Americans who support a strong Israel,” Reince Preibus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in an e-mail to JTA.

Democrats say two distortions have fueled their fury: the notions that Obama broke with U.S. policy to force Israel back to the pre-1967 lines and, as a result, that Jewish voters, a key base, are slipping away from the Democrats. A flurry of media stories in recent weeks have suggested that Obama is losing Jewish donor support, although few past donors to the president are reported to be reconsidering their support.

Where the Jews stand on Obama matters not just because of the Jewish vote, which is significant in key swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but also because of Jewish money. The 2012 presidential election will be the first since a Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate giving to candidates. The Obama campaign has said it will need more money than ever because big business tends to lean Republican.

Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and estimates over the years have reckoned that Jewish donors provide between one-third and two-thirds of the party’s money.

“Every two or four years Republicans say, ‘This is the year Jewish voters, or donors, or activists, are going to trend Republican,’” said Steve Rabinowitz, a strategist who advises Democrats and Jewish groups. “Every November it turns out not to be true.”

Republicans made clear that they see a new opening, given the “1967 lines” brouhaha.

“We’re stepping up our game with Jewish donors and other potential Jewish supporters that feel like Obama turned his back on them,” an RNC official who is not authorized to speak on the record told JTA.

Obama’s appointment earlier this year of Wasserman Schultz as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee came in part in response to concerns that Republicans were making headway among Jews. Wasserman Schultz also contributed an Obama defense to the South Florida Sun Sentinel over the weekend.

“They’re taking proactive steps that ensure they get in front of this,” said a Democratic operative close to the Jewish community who requested anonymity. “They’re explaining to the Jewish audience what’s going on so it doesn’t become a problem down the road. It’s better to get ahead of this and tell people what’s actually been said than play catch-up.”

The White House posting begins by addressing the “1967 lines” controversy.

“This territorial formula, which has been used in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for decades, means that the parties themselves will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967 to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” it said, adding that the formula “is fully consistent with the positions of earlier U.S. Administrations, including the 2004 Bush-Sharon letters.”

In fact, while previous administrations — including President George W. Bush in his letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — have acknowledged the 1967 lines as an aspiration for the Palestinians, Obama has gone further in embracing them as a basis for talks. That frustrated Israelis who say it narrows their options by setting parameters.

In the same May 19 Middle East policy speech, Obama also set restrictive parameters for Palestinians, for instance, in declaring that their state would not be militarized.

The difference between Obama and his predecessors is not as drastic as Republicans have portrayed, however, especially in statements like the one recently from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that refer only to the “1967 lines” without noting “mutually agreed swaps.”

The White House is convening meetings of top Democrats in the coming weeks and months to coordinate message discipline.

Jewish Democrats are frustrated with their inability to bury perceptions that Obama has distanced himself from Israel, noting especially that officials in both countries agree that the defense relationship is closer than ever.

Democrats say their concerns extend to the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which for decades has been predicated on bipartisan support. Wasserman Schultz forcefully raised the issue in a meeting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held with top Jewish representatives of both parties last month.

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, shot back with a public letter accusing Wasserman Schultz of trying to gag debate by suppressing legitimate criticism of Obama.

Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, dismissed talk of a “gag order.”

“They have the right to say whatever they want, but Democrats have the right to say it’s not wise,” he said.

Noah Pollak, the director of the Executive Committee for Israel, has acknowledged that Obama’s policies are not substantially different from his predecessors.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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