In Congressional Races, Some Jewish Incumbents Are at Risk

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published July 29, 2010.
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The Senate could go either way. Hopes are dimmer in the House. And Eric Cantor may at last have company.

At least that’s the conventional wisdom on how Jewish lawmakers will do in November.

If Jewish candidates sweep all the Senate races in this midterm election year, the Jewish total in the upper chamber would jump from 13 to 18. But with tight races in California and Wisconsin dogging incumbents, the number of Jews in the Senate also could drop to 11.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, where all the seats are up for re-election every two years, four of the country’s 31 Jewish representatives could lose their seats – two of them because of Jewish anger over President Obama’s relations with Israel. In any case Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, stands a good chance of finally shedding his lonely sobriquet as “the sole Jewish Republican in the House.”

Here is a preview of the congressional contests involving Jewish candidates ahead of the November vote.

SENATE

Colorado: The Aug. 10 Democratic primary is a contest between two Jewish candidates: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), named to the post in 2009 when President Obama tapped incumbent Ken Salazar to be secretary of the interior, and Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives. Bennet’s mother is a Holocaust survivor, but he did not acknowledge his Jewishness until recently, raising Jewish representation in the U.S. Senate from 13 to 14. Romanoff has not shied away from his Jewishness and until recently was a Wexner fellow. Both candidates are outspoken in their support for Israel and on isolating Iran. Romanoff refuses to take special interest money, which has left him at a disadvantage; Bennet’s ads have been on TV much longer, and Romanoff recently sold his home. ColoradoPols.com predicts that Bennet will win the primary, although polls show Romanoff faring better against Republicans in November.

Connecticut: The state’s attorney general, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, has overcome questions raised by The New York Times about how he characterized his Vietnam War experience. In some speeches throughout his career, he appeared to describe himself as a veteran of the war’s battles, although his service was on the home front. His campaign pushed back hard against the Times reports, showing that in other speeches – some delivered on the same day – he made the distinction clear. He is now polling well ahead of Republican Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment whose campaign was peddling Blumenthal’s Vietnam discrepancies. McMahon has had difficulties overcoming her own controversies having to do with a colorful career in wrestling. If Blumenthal succeeds the retiring Chris Dodd, also a Democrat, he will join Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in making Connecticut’s U.S. Senate representation all Jewish.

New Hampshire: U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes’ win in the 2006 Democratic sweep of Congress was seen as a sign that the Granite State was moving from mixed purple to Democratic blue. Now he is seeking the seat of Judd Gregg, the Republican incumbent who is retiring, and is facing an uphill battle: New Hampshire is leaning a redder shade of purple this year, with majorities opposing the health care reform bill passed in March. Hodes faces no real opposition in the Sept. 14 primary, but he trails by substantial margins two of the four candidates running for the GOP nomination. Democratic heavy hitters who helped elect Obama to office already are in the state helping Hodes campaign.

Ohio: Lt.-Gov. Lee Fisher, a Democrat, is putting up a battle against Republican Rob Portman in the race to succeed Republican George Voinovich, who is retiring. Portman, a former U.S. trade representative who is close to the state’s Jewish community, has raised substantially more funds than Fisher, but the Democrat remains neck and neck in the polls. Fisher has won statewide office twice – as attorney general and as lieutenant governor in 2006 – and nearly took the governorship in 2000 in a year when Republicans were favored.

Arizona: For a time during the spring, Democrat Rodney Glassman looked like a contender. Sen. John McCain, the incumbent and Republican presidential candidate in 2008, faced a serious primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth based on McCain’s earlier backing for immigration reform. Hayworth had the backing of immigration hard-liners and Tea Party insurgents. In recent weeks, however, McCain has pulled well ahead of Hayworth, and pundits see that momentum propelling McCain to a sixth Senate term. Democrats say Glassman, a former Tucson vice mayor, is still worth watching. Only 32, he already has put together an impressive CV: Glassman founded a nonprofit for children’s causes at 23, and serves on a long list of charitable boards; he turned around the family business, an ice skating rink, and sold it for a substantial profit; he has funded much of his own campaign; he’s a reservist in the Air Force Judge Advocate General; as an aide to U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), he worked to bring the Jewish and Latino communities closer together. On the state’s signature immigration issue, Glassman opposes a recent controversial law that expands police power to arrest illegal immigrants.

California and Wisconsin: Longtime incumbent Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) face close fights in November, each suffering from the midterm swing against incumbency. Pollsters following Boxer’s race against Republican Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, have been swinging back and forth, the result of a state rattled by near-bankruptcy and climbing unemployment. Feingold maintains a narrow lead over his opponent, Republican Ron Johnson, a plastics executive, but one-third of the voters have told pollsters that they are undecided. That’s not good news for the incumbent, who is known statewide; Johnson can at least claim that he has yet to make his case.

HOUSE INCUMBENTS

Of 30 Jewish Democrats running for reelection, four are seen as potentially facing tough races:

Republicans still haven’t forgiven Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) for taking what they believe should be a GOP stronghold in her Tucson-area district in 2006. She trounced her opponent in 2008 but is taking no chances this year against whichever of four contenders wins the GOP’s Aug. 24 primary. Giffords has sharpened her criticism of the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies and has raised more than $2 million in cash.

Democrats still count Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) as likely to retain his South Florida seat, which he wrested from years of GOP control in 2006. In 2008 he defeated his current opponent, Allen West, by 8.5 percentage points. However, West – a retired Army lieutenant colonel seen as one of the GOP’s best chances to reintroduce a black Republican into Congress – has hammered Klein in this heavily Jewish district by going after President Obama over his recent tensions with Israel over settlements. It might help Klein that he is one of the more hard-line Democrats in Congress when it comes to Israel, and has distanced himself from Obama’s Israel policies.

U.S. Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.) faces similar challenges in his southern New Jersey district, but without Klein’s advantage of not being close to Obama. Adler in 2008 was one of the first candidates in his campaign to endorse Obama as a presidential candidate. Insiders say that’s hurting him in a district that includes a heavy Orthodox Jewish representation in towns like Cherry Hill. Some Democrats have described Adler as facing “Jewish tea parties” when he speaks at synagogues. GOP insiders, however, are not so sanguine that their candidate, Jon Runyan, a former offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, is mounting a credible challenge; Runyan has lagged in fund raising, they say.

Like Giffords and Klein, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) is a target because his Orlando-area district is seen as naturally Republican – but put Grayson under the “more so” column. He has become a lead Democratic bomb-thrower, calling Republicans “Neanderthals,” describing the GOP health care plan as “dying quickly” and calling the health care crisis a “holocaust.” (He later said he regretted the Holocaust allusion.) Grayson is a favorite of the party’s “net roots” and has raised $1.4 million, much of it from small donors. Similarly, whichever of six candidates running in the Aug. 24 GOP primary is likely to mine Republicans eager to send Grayson home.

HOUSE CHALLENGERS

Three Jewish challengers are seen as competitive in November: one Republican, and two running for the same seat.

Randy Altschuler, an electronics recycler, has outraised incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), $2.8 million to $1.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making him competitive in November in the district that covers Long Island’s eastern tip. “He’s a terrific candidate and a real rising star,” said Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition. “I look forward to him joining Eric Cantor,” the minority whip who has long been the House’s only Jewish GOP member.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) is retiring, and two of the four candidates running in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary are Jewish: David Segal, a state representative, and Providence Mayor David Cicilline. The seat is considered a Democratic shoo-in.






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