A community defined by its quest for social justice and known for its disproportionate support for the Democratic Party has woken up to a new reality, dominated by a clear message from voters who chose cuts over spending, Republicans over Democrats.
Jewish politicos and communal activists began the process of adjustment, bidding farewell to five Jewish incumbents who did not survive the Republican upset and becoming acquainted with newcomers, many of them Tea Party candidates previously unknown to a community that prides itself on building bridges with politicians of both parties.
Jewish voters did not seem to take part in the anti-Democratic wave that swept the nation. According to a poll commissioned by the dovish J Street lobby, 66% of Jewish voters chose the Democratic candidates for Congress in their districts. There was no national Jewish poll conducted in the 2006 midterm election, but the percentage this year was lower than the 78% of Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
In a separate survey that focused on the state of Pennsylvania, where Democratic senatorial candidate Joe Sestak was attacked for his views on Israel, results were similar, with 71% of Jewish voters saying they sided with Sestak on Election Day.
While the Republican congressional takeover is expected to have little impact on issues relating to Israel and the Middle East that are of concern to Jewish Americans, it will significantly affect the community’s domestic agenda.
“Among the lessons of the vote was that the American people are speaking out against spending; that’s clearly where the wind is blowing,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization for Jewish federations that provide social services, some of them now expected to be on the chopping block.
Delivering the point of changing priorities was Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, now the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, soon to be the highest-ranking Jew in congressional history. Cantor, expected to become House majority leader, made clear in an interview with CNN that Republicans’ first order of business when the new Congress is sworn in will be cutting government spending. “We need to put federal government on a diet,” Cantor said, speaking as ballots closed throughout the country and as returns showed massive gains for his party.
It is a kind of diet that is worrying Jewish organizations. Major groups, including the federation system, have been fighting to increase spending to broaden the social safety net and expand benefits for the needy. Now, the Republican majority in the House is likely to prompt the Jewish community to re-examine its domestic priorities and to focus on fighting cuts. Expanding entitlements and introducing new social legislation will move to the back burner.
Several Jewish activists have already spoken about putting aside key issues from their agenda, including immigration reform and energy legislation, since chances for passage were all but eliminated by the congressional upset. “We are a pragmatic organization, and we will hold on to our views” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, “but where we put our time and effort will be in places where we can make a difference.”
Instead, Jewish groups are expected to concentrate on the looming budget cuts facing the basic entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — as well as on continuing the fight for smaller social programs, such as the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act .
Reductions in Medicare and Medicaid have been suggested by both sides of the aisle and could be part of the recommendations from a bipartisan White House fiscal commission, due on December 1. A Republican-led House would make it easier to approve such recommendations.
“There’s a myth that Jews are wealthy, even the elderly, but by and large many elderly Jews do not live in poverty only because of programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” said Rachel Goldberg, director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, one of the groups strongly opposed to cutting funding for social safety net programs.
But the voters chose change, and Jewish activists will now need to get used to the new face of Congress.
Russ Feingold, the Jewish senator from Wisconsin who made his mark as champion of good governance, lost his bid for re-election in part due because of his refusal to take money from outside political action committees. Two Jewish Democratic House incumbents from Florida also lost their seats. Ron Klein, of the state’s heavily Jewish 22nd Congressional District, ran as a centrist but lost to Allen West, a retired lieutenant colonel, and Alan Grayson, who held on to his ultra-liberal views in a tough campaign, was ousted in the 8th District. Other Jewish lawmakers who paid with their seat are New Jersey’s John Adler and Steve Kagen of Wisconsin. Congress will see, however, a couple of new Jewish faces: Richard Blumenthal, who won a tough Senate race in Connecticut, and David Cicilline from Rhode Island, who will join the House of Representatives.
Coming in to Congress will be also a new class of Tea Party candidates that represents a great unknown for the Jewish community. Since most of them have entered politics only recently, they did not have a chance to engage with their local Jewish community and to build relationships with the national Jewish leadership.
Capitol Hill, however, is still a friendly place for Jewish and pro-Israeli activists. Leadership of key committees, including Appropriations and Foreign Affairs, will remain in the hands of veteran Republicans with whom pro-Israeli activists had established long-standing working relations. “We make sure to be in close ties with both sides, and we’ve always worked with both the majority and the minority, so these kinds of transitions are easier for us,” said Daniel Meron, minister of congressional affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.