By E.J. Kessler

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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Off to the Races: How’s this for a feel-good horse-race story? Most Jewish candidates running for Congress this year will win.

All of the 30 incumbent Jewish senators and congressmen running for re-election are favored to retain their seats, with the notable exception of one. That’s Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who has gotten “hammered,” so to speak. The 13-term Democrat, a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, emerged as the chief target of “The Hammer,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who successfully pushed Texas’s legislature to redraw congressional district lines with an eye toward knocking out Democrats and solidifying the GOP’s 227 to 205 majority in the House. DeLay’s redistricting maneuver forced Frost into the Republican-leaning 32nd District and a race against incumbent GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, a well-liked conservative tax-cutter. While a recent Dallas Morning News Poll showed Sessions leading only 50%-44%, Frost will need a superhuman turnout of Hispanics and Jews to eke it out during a year in which a former Texas governor — President Bush — tops the GOP ballot.

In another congressional development, two Jewish candidates — both dynamic, attractive women in the classic Jewish female good-government Democrat mold — are favored to win open congressional seats in important swing states. Their success would boost to seven the number of Jewish women in the House.

In Florida’s 20th District, Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 38, a state senator with a reputation as a hardworking master of legislative craft, basically is inheriting the seat of her former boss, Rep. Peter Deutsch, who gave it up for an unsuccessful bid for his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate. She faces only token opposition in the heavily Democratic district from Republican Margaret Hostetter, a real estate agent.

In Pennsylvania’s 13th District, handicappers favor State Senator Allyson Schwartz, a board member of the National Jewish Democratic Council with a progressive, feminist bent, to win in a tight race over Republican physician Melissa Brown for the seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Hoeffel, who is challenging Senator Arlen Specter. Schwartz has gained some important endorsements, such as that of the local Northeast Times, in the acrimonious race for the swing district, which encompasses parts of Philadelphia and suburban Montgomery County.

What’s more, a Schwartz victory could help draw out Jewish votes for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in hotly contested Pennsylvania. A top Schwartz aide, her son, Jordan, predicts that “having Allyson Schwartz on the ballot is going to be highly important” for Kerry, because a good feeling for her “permeates” Montgomery County’s Jewish community.

Three other Jewish Democratic congressional candidates are seen by handicappers as less likely to win. Jan Schneider, a 57-year-old lawyer and environmental champion, is trying a second time for the seat in Florida’s 13th, which encompasses the Sarasota-Manatee area. She lost 55%-45% there in 2002 to former Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris — known to Democrats as “Cruella Deville” for her role in the 2000 Florida election.

Schneider, a friend of New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, is better funded this time around and has enlisted a crack consultant for her effort to unseat Harris: Internet guru Joe Trippi, the former manager of the presidential campaign of Howard Dean. Motor-mouthed Trippi, always good for a few surprises, “is looking to be a dragon slayer,” the chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County told the St. Petersburg Times.

In Virginia’s Second District, David Ashe, an Iraq war veteran, was running what most handicappers thought was a noble, doomed race against incumbent conservative Republican Rep. Ed Schrock. But then Ashe got an unlikely break: Schrock, whom gay activists considered to be on the wrong side of their agenda because of his voting record, dropped out of the race after an Internet blogger claimed that Schrock pursued gay trysts, according to The Washington Post. Republican Virginia Delegate Thelma Drake replaced Schrock. (Please see story, right.)

In New Hampshire Second District, Concord lawyer Paul Hodes has put up a decent challenge to Republican Rep. Charles Bass. In endorsing the incumbent, the Nashua Telegraph wrote that Hodes “hasn’t been able to gain the needed traction to unseat Bass” but has “shown great potential to become a rising star in the state Democratic Party.”

Finally, in a race of particular interest for pro-Israel activists, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Atlanta is poised to reclaim her old seat in Georgia’s Fourth District. Pro-Israel donors helped unseat McKinney two years ago, citing her outspoken criticisms of Israel and support of Arab causes. But Rep. Denise Majette, who unseated McKinney in 2002, resigned to run for Senate.

Of the five Jews in the Senate who are facing the voters this year, two swing-state senators find themselves in mildly competitive races — Specter, Pennsylvania’s moderate Republican warhorse, and Wisconsin’s maverick liberal Democrat, Russell Feingold — but both men are expected to pull it out.

A champion of campaign finance reform, who famously voted against the USA Patriot Act in part because he objected to its name, Feingold, running for his third term, apparently will retain his seat after what for some weeks looked like a strong challenge from Republican Tim Michels, a utility services company executive. Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Vice President Gore in 2000, has been trending more Republican and is a prime pickup target of Bush. Even so, the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently canceled $1.2 million in television ads it was planning on behalf of Michels, whose poll numbers have dipped.

Specter, one of two Jewish GOP senators, is seeking his fifth term, having survived a stiff primary challenge earlier this year from conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey. With Election Day closing in, Specter is performing the same steal-the-Democratic-base magic he has pulled off in each of his previous contests, wresting union support and suburban and Jewish voters from Democratic challenger Hoeffel.

Three other Jewish senators — all Democrats — appear to be cruising to victory: Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Charles Schumer of New York.

Several non-Jewish legislators are running in Senate races of interest to the American Jewish community.

Former University of South Florida president Betty Castor is facing off against former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez in a battle to replace retiring Senator Bob Graham. The race has devolved into a feud over Castor’s handling in the 1990s of professor Sami Al-Arian, who was later indicted for allegedly financing terrorism.

In South Carolina, Democratic education superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, the non-Jewish wife of a major Palmetto State Jewish philanthropist, is running for Senate against Republican Rep. Jim DeMint. Tenenbaum, a conservative Democrat, has honed in on local distress over cheap textile imports in this heavily conservative Republican state. DeMint, a free trader and fiscal conservative, created a controversy when he said that open gays should not teach in public schools.

In Oklahoma, Democrat Brad Carson is vying for an open seat against GOP Dr. Tom Coburn, an obstetrician and evangelical Christian who has acknowledged sterilizing underage women. Coburn, a former congressman, burned the pro-Israel community by voting against foreign aid. He antagonized some Jews by objecting some years ago to a television broadcast of the Holocaust movie “Schindler’s List,” deeming it unwholesome and anti-family because of the film’s nude scenes.

The Florida, South Carolina and Oklahoma Senate races are all too close to call.

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