Jewish Voters Could Swing Key Congress Races — And Help Democrats Take Back Congress
If the Democratic Party is hoping for a “blue wave” that will help it recapture the House of Representatives, it will need to flip at least 23 districts, likely including one in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Florida’s 18th congressional district is filled with bubbies in age-restricted communities, strip malls and synagogues, including the Reform Temple Beit HaYam, Hebrew for “House of the Sea.”
The candidate the party is backing there has an eye-catching resume. Lauren Baer worked as a senior adviser to Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry and graduated from Harvard College, Yale Law School and the University of Oxford. As she travels the area in search of votes, she’ll do a lot of getting into and out of her car to ring suburban doorbells and tout her local ties — she was born in the county. Plus, she’s young and married with a very cute kid.
But something else altogether could be what puts her over the top: Baer is Jewish, and so is her district.
The Democrats have made districts like the 18th central to their strategy for 2018. The voters in that district did choose Donald Trump in the last election. But the area is disproportionately educated, white-collar and Jewish. Those factors, Democrats believe, make it flippable, both because Democrats (especially Jewish Democrats) are fired up, and because Republicans (especially Jewish Republicans) are not. And those battlegrounds could determine who controls the House after the midterms – and therefore whether President Trump gets impeached.
“The dirty secret about close races is that every vote matters,” Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of the respected nonpartisan analysis website Inside Elections, told the Forward in an email. “In any race decided by just a couple points or less, all types of voters, including Jewish voters, could be the difference between a win or loss for a candidate. It’s not just one demographic that matters in a close race.”
These Jewish swing districts actually aren’t the most Jewish in the country, according to a study by the Berman Jewish Databank that measured Jewish population by congressional district. Those are already in the Democratic column, like New York’s 10th, the most Jewish district in the country, which includes both Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhoods. Florida-18 and its like are suburban, not urban. These districts — in southern California, New Jersey and south Florida — are where mobilization of voters, volunteers and donors will be key.
“There’s a heightened involvement” of Jews in this election cycle, Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who studies American Jewish political behavior, told the Forward. “Jewish women marching, then becoming very active candidates or on behalf of candidates, being turned on the issue of gun control or the issues of women — all of these are stimulating or promoting activism on the liberal side.”
Such activity in these areas may matter. “A path to a majority might lie through the suburbs of a lot of major cities,” Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told the Forward.
Democrats will need to hold all their seats and flip 23 Republican seats in order to win the House. If they do, they will not only be able to tilt must-pass budgets and other legislation in a liberal direction, they will also be able to hold hearings that will likely embarrass the White House. The most serious of those would be impeachment proceedings, which would be run by Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York’s 10th, assisted by at least five other fellow Jewish congressmen.
Out of the 59 districts rated competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, 39 have a higher Jewish share of the population than the median congressional district, a Forward analysis reveals.
(The median number — instead of the average — better reflects the typical House district’s Jewish population because districts like New York’s 10th are so densely Jewish that they skew the average upward.) In some of these districts, the Jewish population is larger than the margin of victory in the last election.
Battleground districts with the Jewish share of the population higher than the median. For best results, zoom in and click on pins for district information, or scroll through the districts individually by clicking on the graphic in the top-left corner of the map. Districts in Pennsylvania will have new boundaries in the 2018 general elections.
Democratic strategists like these districts — unusually Jewish, but not extremely so — because Jewish voters are largely Democrats. Party leaders hope to pick up additional votes, activism and dollars from liberals who may not have supported Clinton passionately but find themselves stirred to action by Trump, as well as fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal Republican types disgusted with the government’s direction.
“Democrats are confident in their ability to win different types of districts,” Gonzales explained. “They believe they can knock off Republican incumbents in Clinton districts with a surge in Democratic voters. But they also believe they can win Trump districts with uniquely strong candidates.”
Jewish voters “could be critically important in some of those races,” Windmueller predicted. He said the Jewish vote could be decisive if “a significant number of Jews in New Jersey or L.A. County turn out, as they will most likely. And significant numbers can make a difference in a tight election.”
Meet the candidates
It’s possible that having Jewish candidates could help turn out Jewish voters, activists and donors. And many of the Democratic challengers in key disproportionately-Jewish districts are themselves Jewish: Army veteran Max Rose on Staten Island; Lauren Baer in Palm Beach and its northern environs; businessman and philanthropist (and the grandson of “Dear Abby”) Dean Phillips in Minneapolis’s western suburbs; former CIA analyst Elissa Slotkin in Lansing, Michigan; and retired Navy commander Elaine Luria in Virginia Beach.
Each of these candidates is part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, which gives candidates increased access to donors and institutional support. And many of them cite their Judaism when they explain why they are running. “There’s a fine line between those who succeed and those who don’t, and it’s incumbent on those who do to help others,” Phillips said last year. “That I very much consider being a Jewish ideal and responsibility.”
As I lit the Hanukkah candles I was reminded of the wise words of MLK. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” May we all be reminded of our obligation to fill the world with light & love. #HappyHanukkah
— Lauren Baer (@laurenbaer) December 12, 2017
Are Jews more likely to support a Jewish candidate?
“There’s something called a ‘friends and neighbors’ effect whereby candidates often do better among voters in their immediate communities,” University of Florida political science professor Kenneth Wald told the Forward. “I’m sure this extends to religion and ethnicity as well.”
But even Wald cautioned against reading too much into the Jewish factor when it comes to voting, because it’s intertwined with other factors.
“It’s not clear that [high voting rates are] because they’re Jews as much as because they’re older and better-educated population, and those are traits that predict high rates of engagement,” he said.
Nevertheless, all of the above could combine to create “a greater intensity of voting” as well as significant financial influence by Jews in contested races, Windmueller predicted.
“Jews are clearly supervoters”
The Jewish vote could be especially important because, Wald said, “Jews are clearly supervoters,” voting at higher rates than the general population.
Around three-quarters of Jewish voters tend to vote for Democrats, and liberals are expected to turn out in large numbers this year to show their displeasure with the Trump administration and its congressional Republican support.
Even some far-left Bernie Sanders backers who wouldn’t turn out for Clinton might bring themselves to vote for more centrist candidates in ’18, Joshua Baum, the chair of the California Young Democrats Jewish Caucus, told the Forward.
“I think people saw last November what happens when certain states don’t have as high a turnout as they should,” Baum said. “I think a lot of people understand that now, and understand that their vote is really powerful and they can’t afford to stay home.”
On the other side of the aisle, many Republicans might switch parties – at least for this election. “Non-Orthodox Jews, even those who are conservative or Republican, are more likely to vote Democrat, in part because they are horrified by what Trump has done,” Wald explained.
To be sure, Jewish Republicans, already a minority of the population, will not behave uniformly. Many will stay loyal to the GOP. Others, however, might not vote at all, due to what pollsters call an “enthusiasm gap.” That would benefit the Democrats.
“I would say that there definitely is” such a gap, Skelley said. “The number of polls that have asked respondents questions such as, are you following the election closely, are you planning to vote…generally speaking, Democratic identifiers are more engaged, more likely to vote.”
“Where the enthusiasm gap exists is the degree among Republican Jewish activists as to how energized they are about Donald Trump’s policies – his tax policies, his immigration policies,” Windmueller explained. “And so you get a mix of voices. You have some who want to embrace the president, and others are sitting back, not happy.”
He predicted that “Israel-first voters” will give Trump an A grade. Wald agreed.
“The Modern Orthodox are likely to stand firm,” Wald predicted. “Trump’s actions with regards to moving the Israeli embassy [from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem] are going to endear him to them.”
This isn’t true for most American Jews, though, Windmueller said. Polling shows that the majority doesn’t prioritize the Jewish state as their number-one concern when they go to vote, instead focusing on the same mix of largely domestic factors as the rest of the American electorate.
“We’re increasingly known for our activism”
Voting is not the only way in which Jews will influence campaigns. Jewish groups and individuals have been prominent members of the “resistance” to Trump. Grassroots groups like Indivisible, founded by Jewish couple Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, are helping more people run for local office or support their candidates.
Other activists are protesting his administration in ways that link their Jewishness with their politics: civil rights group Bend the Arc’s anti-Trump campaign is called “We’ve Seen This Before,” referring to hate and political violence such as that suffered by Jews during the Holocaust.
While groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition are also building support for their chosen candidates, that “enthusiasm gap” might dampen Republican Jewish support for the GOP.
But that could be overcome with sufficient financial support, another form of activism.
“Jews are not just supervoters, they’re also superdonors,” Wald said.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, six out of the top 10 individual political contributors during the 2016 election cycle were Jewish: Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer gave more than $108 million to Republicans between the two of them, while Donald Sussman, James Simons, Michael Bloomberg and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz each spent more than $20 million on Democratic causes.
At first glance, 2018 promised to be no different, with they and other machers like Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, a Republican, set to spend fortunes.
But it appears that the “enthusiasm gap” has also hit some Republican Jewish donors.
Florida auto dealer Norman Braman, for example, gave more than $7 million to conservative candidates and campaign groups in the last cycle, but only gave $5,400 in 2017 and $0 so far in 2018, according to Federal Election Committee filings.
And hedge fund billionaire Seth Klarman, who spent more than $7 million on conservative candidates and PACs during the Obama administration, announced in April that he would be donating to Democrats from now on.
“The Republicans in Congress have failed to hold the president accountable and have abandoned their historic beliefs and values,” Klarman said in a statement to the Boston Globe. “For the good of the country, the Democrats must take back one or both houses of Congress.” He said he would pay for the donations using the savings from the newly passed tax cut, which he described as something “I neither need nor want.”
Forty-three House Republicans – including those in heavily Jewish districts like Dan Donovan’s on Staten Island, Dana Rohrabacher’s in Orange County and John Faso’s in New York’s Hudson Valley – are getting out-fundraised by Democratic challengers despite the fact that the Republicans are the incumbents, according to Politico.
“The Jews are so significantly important to both parties in their financial capacity to make a difference,” Windmueller said. “Financial engagement will matter.”