WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s Republican blitz triggered a wave of deep disappointment among Jewish organizational officials, who are openly worrying about the fate of their liberal domestic agenda now that the GOP has strengthened its control over the White House and Congress.
In particular, several Jewish communal leaders bemoaned the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who has worked closely with Jewish activists on both domestic and foreign policy issues.
Jewish organizations have generally been supportive of President Bush’s foreign policy, but they tend to lean heavily to the left on a range of domestic issues, including abortion, church-state separation and federal funding for anti-poverty programs.
“It’s going to be a very hard time,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative public-policy group that brings together 123 local Jewish communities and 13 national Jewish organizations. “On Israel, we will continue to have a friendly Congress, but on domestic issues we are facing a very hard fight ahead.”
Jewish groups worried that a re-elected President Bush would use the increased Republican majority in the House and Senate to further curb funding for federal aid programs, a trend that started in the outgoing Republican-dominated Congress. “For anyone who advocates funding for programs for vulnerable populations, this will be a tough fight. There are just no funds there, and the appropriations bill that is coming up to give more money to fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq will only exacerbate the problem,” Rosenthal said. “My guess is that the first thing that Congress will do is go after Medicaid, and that’s terrible.”
Liberal Jewish activists are also concerned that an emboldened Bush will nominate staunch conservatives for vacancies in the Supreme Court and in lower federal courts. “We can only hope that President Bush appoints moderate judges that the country can get behind with full acceptance, and that he would not appoint divisive, more extreme judges to exacerbate the culture war in America,” said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, the Washington-based public-policy arm of the Reform movement.
Orthodox groups, which in recent years have built strong alliances with Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill, were sounding a more positive note. Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute of Public Affairs, located in Washington, said the GOP gains could translate into greater influence for his organization. “With Bush holding the White House and Republicans expanding their control in Congress — we will be able to come in and say, ‘Look, we are the segment of the community that supported you,’ and that would make them more interested in aspects of our agenda.”
Diament’s positive outlook appeared to represent the minority of Jewish organizational officials in Washington. Among the biggest sources of disappointment was Daschle’s apparent defeat.
Daschle ran a tight race against John Thune, a young conservative who, in his three terms as a member of the House, had a mixed record on Israel. “Thune is pro-Israel, but Israel is not a priority issue for him,” said Stephen Rosenthal, director of South Dakota’s chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Thune “is an Evangelical Christian and he is this kind of pro-Israel,” said
Rosenthal, a prominent leader of the state’s 300-strong Jewish community. “I called his office several times to ask for support on Israel and several times the reply was. ‘Oh, we don’t have time for that. We’re in the middle of this or in the middle of that,’ and then he ended up on the wrong side of the vote.”
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican, easily won a fifth term, while State Senator Allyson Schwartz was elected to Congress from the swing 13th District in Pennsylvania. Schwartz was buoyed by endorsements and a strong Democratic tide in the Keystone State.
State Senator Debbie Wasserman Schultz, another Democratic House candidate, waltzed to victory in Florida’s 20th.
But Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, the Democrat who was the prime target of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, ended his long career in elected office after a ferocious struggle in what was the most expensive House race in the country. Iraq veteran David Ashe, a political novice and Democrat, lost his bid for Virginia’s Second.
Russell Feingold of Minnesota, a maverick liberal Democrat, neatly put away rival Tim Michels.
In other races of Jewish interest: Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat and the non-Jewish wife of a major Jewish philanthropist, was defeated in her bid to represent South Carolina in the Senate. Turnout for President Bush in the heavily Republican state appeared to carry her opponent, Rep. Jim DeMint.
Florida Democratic Senate candidate Betty Castor lost narrowly to her Republican opponent, Mel Martinez, who made an issue of her handling of an alleged terrorism financier. And Democrat Cynthia McKinney, bugaboo of pro-Israel activists, will return to Congress to represent Georgia’s Fourth.