Nevada Jews Swing Like the State

In Sin City, Economy Counts More Than Israel


By John Marschall

Published October 01, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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Nevada is a right-to-work state, but the Culinary Union is very strong in Southern Nevada. While the union will not likely change people’s opinion of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, it could help to get out the union vote. This would favor Obama and local Jewish favorite Berkley, who has been Nevada’s congressional representative from Southern Nevada since 1999. She is currently running for the U.S. Senate against a Republican incumbent. Her congressional voting record reflects the staunchest support for Israel and its governing party on the one hand, and an equally strong advocacy on civil rights, women’s issues, gun control and organized labor on the other.

In the past, her re-election to Congress from a safe district was virtually ensured, but she is now carrying some unwanted (and, her supporters would say, “underserved”) baggage. The Republican-controlled House Ethics Committee is investigating whether Berkley’s successful opposition to the federal closing of a Las Vegas kidney transplant center where her husband works was a conflict of interest. The timing and outcome of that investigation will certainly add drama to her race. Pundits had speculated that in order for her to win, she would need 55% percent of the Las Vegas vote and a break-even outcome in Northern Nevada. A growing number of Nevada Jews stand in opposition to Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians, but that is not likely to deter them from supporting Berkley, who frequently expresses hawkish views on Israel.

Las Vegas resident Adelson is among the wealthiest people in the world and is an unapologetic supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Israeli politics. While he is admired by some for his business acumen and appreciated for his local philanthropy, it is unlikely that these attributes would move conservative Jewish Democrats or independents to vote Republican. Some observers have even warned that Adelson’s multimillion-dollar support for Newt Gingrich and the Romney-Ryan ticket, as well as his planned developments in Spain, may create a blowback among those caught up in Nevada’s economic crisis and who resent a rich man’s meddling. No one denies, however, that Adelson’s one vote is freighted heavily against Obama and Berkley, who once worked for Adelson but had a public falling-out over the casino magnate’s views on unions.

Richard Siegel, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, sees some conflicting trends that complicate predictions of the Nevada Jewish vote. Older Jews unflinchingly support Israel, he says, while younger Jews are increasingly less concerned about Israel as a national imperative. He believes these older Nevada Jews will strongly support Obama in 2012 but at a rate of 5% to 10% lower than in 2008, due to changes in their socioeconomic status and consequent tilt to the right.

Prototypical Nevada Jews are religiously unaffiliated, female, more than 55 years of age, relatively well educated, generally secure economically and, if not retired, employed in a managerial or professional position. Their politics — traditionally Democratic — will be challenged statewide by a much larger block of voters, the Mormon population that is traditionally Republican, and by members of the small but well-heeled Republican Jewish Coalition, who will try to chip away at these Jewish voting patterns. At stake are five electoral votes and possible control of the U.S. Senate. Predicting a Jewish vote in Nevada is a gamble. To paraphrase Christian Scripture and Jewish jest, “Where two or three are gathered together, there is a fourth or fifth opinion in the midst.”

John Marschall is professor emeritus in history from the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “Jews in Nevada: A History” (University of Nevada Press, 2008).


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