Washington — When then U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer of Brooklyn challenged U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato in 1998, Schumer told New Yorkers they didn’t have to settle for what he described as half a loaf.
“Al D’Amato had a great record for Israel, and I never tried to begrudge it,” Schumer recalled of his first successful Senate election campaign. “But I said, ‘Why can’t we have somebody who represents us not only on what we believe in Israel, but on what we believe as Americans?’ Because we Jews are Americans first and foremost.”
A decade later, Democrats are sounding a similar note as they try to convince voters in congressional districts that have large and consistent Jewish voting blocs that they can have it all when it comes to a member of Congress whose values match their own. While this strategy isn’t new, Democrats say that this year it’s a more intensive attempt to counteract what they contend is the way Republicans have used support for Israel as a wedge issue, and to remind voters of the GOP’s shift to the right on many domestic issues.
“It permits Jews to be able to look to other issues they care about, because they know Israel will be protected,” said Linda Berg, political director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Such a characterization “is not an entirely accurate portrayal of the pro-Israel landscape,” contends Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “There are some who are more pro-Israel than others [and] who work very hard at the critical issues… and the community should know who they are,” he said.
Democrats are making their case in two House races in particular: Illinois’s 10th Congressional District, in a rematch between Democratic businessman Dan Seals and incumbent Republican Mark Kirk, who won re-election in a district that incorporates some well-off suburbs north of Chicago, and in Michigan’s 9th Congressional District, where Republican Joe Knollenberg faces a challenge from Gary Peters, a former state lottery commissioner and former state senator. Knollenberg is seeking a ninth term representing an area in suburban Detroit.
Other races where Democrats think the strategy could be employed include the New Jersey Senate contest between two Jewish candidates, Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg and GOP Representative Dick Zimmer, and Minnesota, where Republican Senator Norm Coleman faces a challenge from Democrat and fellow Jew Al Franken.
“Israel is just the beginning of Jewish values. It’s not the end,” Seals told the Forward.
Seals and Kirk both back a two-state solution for Middle East peace, Israel’s right to defend itself and the Israel security fence. But Seals paints Kirk as out of touch with his district, because of his support of the Iraq War. He also cites Kirk’s votes to use federal funding in the construction of a 29-foot-tall cross on Mount Soledad near San Diego, and his support for legislation to allow a federal judge to review the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed in 2005, as an example where the incumbent is out of touch with Jewish voters.
“Folks just think that was overstepping the bounds of government,” Seals said of Kirk’s support for the Schiavo bill.
But Kirk has countered by pointing to his support among of local Jewish leaders on a variety of non-Israel-related issues.
Robert Asher, a former Aipac president and Chicago-area Jewish leader, said Kirk’s support for abortion rights, stem cell research and the environment have been a good fit for the liberal-leaning district, where an estimated 20% of voters are Jewish.
Sounding a similar theme, Peters said that voters who back him “will have a strong advocate for Israel, but they’ll also have a strong advocate for everything else.”
Republicans are skeptical of the tactic, calling it an insult to voters and questioning why they would trade proven leaders who have been staunch supports of Israel. But they also question Democrats’ claims to be more in sync with voters on such non-Israel issues as taxes, energy policy and job creation.
“For Washington Democrats and some of their candidates to openly state that they are attempting to remove the Israel issue off the table is a stunning admission that will not go unnoticed in the Jewish community,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats in these districts are emphasizing social and domestic policy issues that polls show have traditionally been popular with Jewish voters: support for such issues as reproductive rights, stem-cell research and separation of church and state, and for safety-net programs ranging from extended unemployment benefits to Social Security. But painting Kirk and Knollenberg as conservative rubber stamps tied at the hip to an unpopular president may prove a tough sell.
Such groups as Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Wildlife Federation have endorsed Kirk. Independent publications have also rated him among the most independent members of Congress. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg campaigned for Kirk earlier this year, touting his legislation to ban assault weapons.
At the same time, Seals’s own attitudes have been targeted. At the same time, Seal’s own attitudes have been targeted. When Jay Footlik, a former Clinton White House liaison to the Jewish Community challenged Seals in the Democratic primary, he questioned whether Seals would defend Israel as unequivocally as necessary. Two years later, Footlik put aside those qualms to endorse Seals in this election.