Campaigning, Jewish-Style: Updates From Minnesota and Florida

By Brett Lieberman

Published October 11, 2008.
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Elections with an incumbent office holder are usually a referendum on the person already in office. That’s not necessarily the case in Minnesota, where the U.S. Senate contest may be more a reflection on Democrat Al Franken than on incumbent Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman for what’s become known as the state’s Jewish senate seat.

Comedian Franken, A former “Saturday Night Live” writer, has tried to make the election a referendum on Coleman’s support for President Bush. But it has been Franken’s own record that has faced the most scrutiny in a state trending Democratic. His old rape jokes from a reported SNL skit that never actually aired, or an old satirical column written for Playboy that drew the ire of many Minnesota Democratic leaders, might have played well in New York City, but not in what’s known as “Minnesota nice,” and failing to pay taxes was one of the indiscretions for which he was forced to apologize.

“You’re dealing with someone who came into this race the flawed candidate, and that has not improved for him,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for The Cook Political Report. “The opposition research [on Franken] fills about two 18-wheeled trucks, and the Coleman campaign has used it well and the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] has used it well,” she said.

Yet, a Princeton Survey Research Associates International poll released on October 3 gave Franken and national Democrats, who need the Minnesota seat to win a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority, reason for to be optimistic. The survey showed Franken leading Coleman 43% to 34%, and this represents Franken’s most significant lead in a race in which he has mostly trailed.

The negative advertising appears to be playing a role in his lead. More than half those polled described anti-Franken ads as “mostly unfair personal attacks.” Only 42% said the same about the anti-Coleman messages.

Common to both polls, however, is the spoiler role played by Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, who served for two months as interim senator after the 2002 death of Democratic Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone. Barkley claimed 18% of support in the Princeton Survey poll conducted for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

And down in Florida’s 18th Congressional District, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Latina in Congress when she was elected in 1989. Now, Democratic Florida businesswoman Annette Taddeo hopes to become the first Jewish Latina sent to Capitol Hill. Colombian-born Taddeo represents one of the Democrats’ best hopes of electing a new Jew to Congress in a district that stretches from the beaches and downtown Miami to the Florida Keys.

Taddeo, founder of a language-translation business with clients that have included Citigroup and the White House, hopes that her experience and the changing attitudes in the district with a large Cuban population will be major factors, given the economic downturn.

She frames the race as a choice between hiring “somebody who is a business woman and understands the economy and has had a business for 15 years, or somebody who has been in Washington for 19 years, who has been part of the entire atmosphere of deregulation and supported President Bush all the way.”

But Ros-Lehtinen has strong support in the district, winning 62% of the vote in 2006. She especially has support among older Cuban Americans. She has pushed for some of America’s toughest restrictions on Cuba. The former chair of the House foreign relations subcommittee also has been a strong proponent of sanctions against Iran.

“U.S. sanctions have hindered Iran’s ability to attract capital, materials, and technical support, and have created extensive and growing financial difficulties for the regime,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Institute for Contemporary Affairs during a visit to Israel last June, according to a recently released transcript. “Yet, although Congress has repeatedly passed sanctions legislation which has been signed into law, its implementation has been watered down or ignored by successive administrations.”

Taddeo is counting on a generational divide within the Cuban community. Younger Cubans, she notes, are more concerned about such economic issues as health care, the job market and the fallout of the real estate market than about isolating Cuba, which is a preoccupation among older generations.

One of the few policy areas in which Taddeo offers praise for Ros-Lehtinen is the latter’s support for Israel. But Taddeo thinks Jewish voters — estimated to encompass about 7% of the district in such areas including Coral Cables, Miami Beach and Pinecrest— are more in sync with her support of abortion rights, health care and separation of church and state.

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