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As Virginia, New Jersey Elect Governors, a New Role for Women Pols

New Jersey and Virginia traditionally are the only states to vote for governor in the year after a presidential election, and so they are considered a referendum of sorts for a new administration in Washington. That’s one reason Democrats are so concerned this year about mobilizing usually reliable Jewish voters in these close races.

But there’s another reason: In both New Jersey and Virginia, Jewish women are running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket, and if they win, it will mark the first time a Jewish woman is elected to statewide office in these two key states.

In New Jersey, Democratic governor Jon Corzine has succeeded in closing a 10% gap and is now in a statistical dead heat with Republican Chris Christie. Virginia’s race is not as close, with Republican Bob McDonnell leading Creigh Deeds, a Democrat, by a single-digit margin.

“We know how important our community is in both races,” said Linda Berg, political director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “We just might have enough Jewish voters to make the difference.” According to estimates, New Jersey has some 240,000 Jewish voters, while Virginia has fewer than 100,000 — and like Jews in the rest of the nation, they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama last year.

The president’s name, however, does not appear on the talking points of Jewish Democratic activists working in either state. Democrats would like to see the gubernatorial races stay just as they are: a local debate over local issues. In contrast, Republicans view the 2009 elections as a chance to examine Obama’s first year in office and to change public perception before the 2010 midterm elections.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that although the issues are local, the question of Obama’s performance is “a subtext of these elections.” Brooks said that Jewish voters in New Jersey and Virginia would also have “in the back of their minds” Obama’s relations with Israel. “There is a lot of buyer’s remorse, and that’s why it will be difficult [for Democrats] to translate their numbers to support for Corzine and Deeds.”

Recent polls have shown that Jewish voters, 78% of whom voted for Obama in 2008, still back the president strongly. But while Jews are overrepresented in Congress when considering their numbers in the general population, the picture is different on the state level, where there are three current governors who are Jewish and no others in the No. 2 position.

In New Jersey, candidate Loretta Weinberg has described herself as a “feisty Jewish grandmother” and is being showcased in the campaign as a reformer who can clean up the state, which has been plagued by corruption. Weinberg, a well-known figure in the state’s political scene, has been active with the National Council of Jewish Women. She is also a victim of the Bernard Madoff scandal, having lost $1.3 million of her retirement fund that was invested with Madoff’s firm.

In Virginia, candidate Jody Wagner, running for lieutenant governor in a separate race (unlike New Jersey, where Weinberg shares a ticket with Corzine) is also a familiar face for the state’s Jewish voters. Wagner was president of the Jewish Family Service of Tidewater and was active in local Jewish groups.

“We know that having these two women in the race gives Jewish voters a comfort level,” Berg said of the NJDC. It also helps make the case for Jewish voters who might not care all that much about local politics, but have a soft spot for Jewish history.

That’s why in New Jersey, Democratic activists are contacting Jewish organizations, synagogues and community centers, offering to sponsor election-related meetings. A special fundraising drive was launched in early October, setting a target of $60,000 for outreach efforts to Jewish voters. Activists are especially touting the governor’s stand on reproductive rights and stem-cell research — issues important to Jews, and ones that distinguish Corzine from his GOP rival.

Republicans, in a set of full-page ads scheduled to run in local Jewish papers before the elections, are focusing on Christie’s record as New Jersey’s first post-9/11 U.S. Attorney, arguing that his tough actions against terror and violence will make the state friendlier for Jewish families. “The greatest Jewish value is family,” the ads state. Other ads blast Corzine for the state’s high property tax — which, according to Republicans, is driving away families.

And then, of course, there is Israel. Both parties speak about their respective candidates’ strong support for Israel, but Democrats feel they have the edge, thanks to the incumbent governor’s record. “Corzine was so active in interacting with Israel that I think we are in a unique position,” said Jill LaZare, a Short Hills attorney who is volunteering with Jewish Democrats in New Jersey.

In Virginia, activity is focused on the northern part of the state, which is home to the majority of Jewish voters. “We want to make sure our community is doing its job,” said Alana Kuhn, who is in charge of Jewish Democrats’ activity in the state, where Jewish voters will be getting phone calls and visits by activists discussing issues close to their heart: reproductive rights, stem-cell research and relations with Israel. Jewish Democrats are also pointing to McDonnell’s past statements and legislative efforts seen as being in opposition to women’s rights, a theme that resonates with Jewish voters.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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