More than a half-century ago, when Akiba Hornstein, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, made his way from New York to the sunny desert of southern Arizona, he found himself, like many Jews in the hinterlands, in need of a name change. Soon, the state had a Gifford Hornstein. When, presumably, that moniker failed to give the desired effect, he tried a more creative combination: Gifford Giffords.
Times have clearly changed.
Today, Giffords’s granddaughter, a Democratic state senator named Gabrielle Giffords, is running for Congress in Tucson, and feels comfortable enough to list her synagogue affiliation on her campaign Web site, along with photos of herself on horseback and with her motorcycle.
The candidate — who is in the midst of one the country’s most competitive races — is one of at least a dozen Jewish challengers working to capture Republican-held seats in the House of Representatives. Many of these candidates are seen as having a decent chance at victory, in a year when Democrats need to pick up just 15 seats to take back the lower chamber.
The number of Jewish members of the House reached its peak at 33 in the early 1990s, but the Republican sweep in 1994 brought that figure down to 24 and gave control of the House to the GOP. This year, according to several observers, a Democratic tide could usher in a sizeable crop of new Jewish legislators, particularly in the House, where 26 Jewish members currently serve.
“If Democrats take the House, we’re going to see a huge influx” of Jewish lawmakers, said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “But even on a disappointing night, I think we’ll see a few more Jewish Democrats in the House.”
According to NJDC, there are 13 Jewish Democratic challengers in total running for Republican-held seats in both the House and Senate seats this November, but only one Jewish Republican challenger.
In addition to Giffords — who is the second cousin of Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow — the list of Jewish Democratic upstarts running for House seats includes Ellen Simon, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who is also running in Arizona, as well as Gary Trauner and John Yarmuth, who would become the first Jewish representatives from Wyoming and Kentucky, respectively, if they win.
Several of the Jewish candidates are among the most competitive of November’s Democratic hopefuls. Giffords’s campaign in Arizona’s eighth congressional district, one of the most closely watched nationwide, has been rated as one of 19 “toss-up” races by the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Gifford — a member of Tucson’s Congregation Temple Chaverim, a Reform synagogue, who originally returned to the Tucson area to help run her family’s retail tire business — is favored to beat conservative Republican Randy Graf, who was not backed by his party in the primary, for the open seat of retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe.
In a signal of growing momentum, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced last week that Giffords’s campaign was chosen, along with those of seven others, as a “red to blue” priority race.
The program, which includes a total of 42 campaigns this year, provides additional financial support and expertise to strong challengers.
In addition to Giffords, two other Jewish challengers were chosen last week to participate in the program: Paul Hodes, who is mounting his second campaign against six-term Rep. Charlie Bass in New Hampshire’s second congressional district and Steve Kagen, a doctor from Appletown, Wisconsin, who is running against Republican state representative John Gard for the eighth district seat being vacated by Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green.
Both races are among the 15 rated by the Cook report as “leaning Republican”— a category that is slightly less competitive than a “toss-up,” but still seen as a place where a Democratic challenger has a solid chance at winning.
The report also includes Yarmuth’s bid against Rep. Anne Northrup in Kentucky’s third district in that category.
But the most closely-watched Jewish House candidate, besides Giffords, is likely Florida State Sen. Ron Klein, whose race to unseat Rep. Clay Shaw in the 22nd congressional district, has been rated a toss-up by the Rothenberg Political Report, and was chosen to be in the first class of the DCCC’s “red to blue” candidates.
Unlike the districts of many of the other Jewish challengers, Klein’s area, which includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, has one of the highest concentrations of Jewish voters — about 25% of likely midterm voters, according to an NJDC estimate — of any congressional district with a Republican incumbent.
These days, the Jewish background of candidates is far less important than it once was, said Rabbi Kurt Stone, the author of “The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill.” For example, the first Jewish member of Congress, David Levy Yulee, was known as “the Jew Senator,” though he insisted that he was merely Moroccan. “Today, the people who might have upset races, it will probably be absolutely incidental the fact that they are Jewish,” Stone said in an interview with the Forward. He added that in many cases, when Jews run in areas with few Jewish residents, many voters are not aware of the candidates’ religious background.
Several candidates who spoke with the Forward did say that they would be strong advocates for Israel in Congress.
This is “an opportunity to send someone to Congress who’s going to work for Israel,” Giffords told the Forward, during a conversation in which she stressed familiar Democratic talking points on the war in Iraq, health care and the environment. “My concern is that what we’ve done in Iraq has left the region less secure and less safe,” Giffords said. “We’ve taken our eye off the ball.”
When asked about the recent war in Lebanon, Giffords defended Israel’s use of force.
“Obviously we cannot allow foreign countries to come over onto other countries and kidnap soldiers,” Giffords said. “When you think about the real challenges that we have in Israel it is incredibly difficult because you have a country that is surrounded by other countries that don’t recognize Israel, that aren’t interested in working with Israel in a comprehensive fashion to strengthen and stabilize the whole region.”