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From grizzly bear slayer to former Federation head: Eight Jewish candidates to watch

Now that the Democratic presidential primary is over, close observers of American politics will be broadening the number of races to pay attention to ahead of November — not just the presidential election, but also the 479 simultaneous races for the House of Representatives, the Senate and governorships.

Studies have long shown that Jews are not only more likely to vote in elections, but are also overrepresented in political office. The year 2020 will likely be no different. Indeed, two races for open seats in congressional districts with large Jewish populations – New York’s 17th in Westchester and Rockland Counties and and Massachusetts’ 4th in the Boston suburbs – have multiple Jewish candidates running in the Democratic primary, which is the real election in those heavily liberal districts.

Here are eight Jewish congressional candidates (listed in alphabetical order) who are likely to make waves between now and November:

Dr. Al Gross, independent from Alaska

Gross, an orthopedic surgeon and a commercial fisherman, may have the most unique resume out of any Jewish candidate running for office. But so far the focus of his campaign has been just how Alaskan he is: One ad claimed that he was “born in the wake of an avalanche” and once killed a grizzly bear in self-defense. He comes with a good local political family lineage: His father, Avrum Gross, was the state attorney general when Alaska implemented its famous oil dividend payment system.

Although he’s running as an independent, Al Gross is endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (no Democrat is running in the race). It’ll be an uphill battle against incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan – the Cook Political Report, one of the country’s most respected political prognostication publications, labels the state “Solid Republican.” But Gross will have a lot of financial muscle in a state where that could go a long way. He announced this week that he raised more than $1 million in the past three months and has $2 million in the bank.

Sara Jacobs, Democrat from California

Jacobs, who is running for a San Diego-area congressional seat, is only 31, but she’s already a veteran of congressional campaigns – she ran two years ago in a neighboring district, though she didn’t make it out of the primary. She also has an accomplished resume for someone so young, having worked as a foreign policy advisor for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign after stints at the United Nations, UNICEF and as a State Department contractor.

She’s been endorsed by both moderate and progressive Democratic members of Congress, but thanks to California’s “jungle primary” election rules, she’ll face off in November against a Democrat who is further to her left — San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, who supports Medicare-for-All and has been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Jacobs has already attracted criticism in the race because her billionaire grandparents, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan, formed a “super PAC” that spent $1.5 million on ads to support her candidacy.

Matt Lieberman, Democrat from Georgia

Yet another Jewish candidate with impressive family members, Matt Lieberman, who is running for Senate, is the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman, the first (and so far only) Jew to run on a major party’s presidential ticket. Matt Lieberman, a health care entrepreneur and former teacher, said that he would rely on his dad for advice but that he’s running as his own man. “If people were fans of my dad, maybe they’ll give me an extra hearing,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And for people who aren’t fans, I want them to remember we’re different people and to hear me out as well. I’m confident they will. That’s all I can ask for.”

The race is rated by Cook as “Lean Republican”; incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, under fire for accusations of insider trading, will face off in a jungle primary on November’s election day against Republican Rep. Doug Collins as well as several Democrats, including Lieberman and Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Atlanta house of worship formerly led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The top two vote-getters will face off again in a January runoff.

Kathy Manning, Democrat from North Carolina

Manning’s name is likely familiar to Jewish insiders: The Greensboro, N.C. philanthropist was the founding chair of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools and was the first woman to serve as chair of the Jewish Federations of North America (though her campaign website doesn’t specifically name JFNA, only saying that she was the first woman to lead “one of the largest charitable, faith-based organizations in the world”). She narrowly lost her 2018 congressional election 52%-46%, but her district was redrawn after the state Supreme Court said it was too gerrymandered. Now it’s expected to be much more favorable to local Democrats, who picked her as their nominee once again; Cook ranks it “Likely Democratic.”

Jon Ossoff, Democrat from Georgia

Remember him? Yes, Jon Ossoff, the Democratic former documentary filmmaker who narrowly lost the most expensive congressional race in American history, is running again, this time in Georgia’s other Senate race (there are two this year because of a retirement).

Three years ago, Ossoff, then only 30, came up short against Republican Karen Handel in a widely-watched special election in the Atlanta suburbs. (Handel would go on to lose to Democrat Lucy McBath the following year.) Unlike Lieberman, Ossoff will have to win the Democratic primary for the right to advance to the November election, though he’s endorsed by Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights legend, and a poll last month found him 15 points up on the closest Democratic competitor. Cook rates the race “Likely Republican,” but the GOP having to defend so many seats across the country, combined with Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising experience, could tip the scales.

David Richter, Republican from New Jersey

Richter, the former CEO of Hill International, the construction consulting megafirm co-founded by his father, is running for Congress in New Jersey’s 3rd district, in the south-central portion of the state. But he actually began the race in the 2nd district, until that district’s congressman, Jeff Van Drew, switched parties and became a Republican at President Trump’s urging. Despite this setback, Richter has highlighted his support for the president, launching his campaign at a Trump campaign rally. According to his campaign, Richter has raised $772,000 – which includes $600,000 that he donated to himself. If he wins the Republican primary, he’ll be facing off against Democratic freshman Rep. Andy Kim; Cook rates the race a toss-up.

Lisa Scheller, Republican from Pennsylvania

Scheller, a former Lehigh County Commissioner, is running in part on her business experience, having turned the aluminum paint manufacturing firm founded by her immigrant grandfather into a global company. But she’s also running on her personal history — she’s open about being a recovering drug and alcohol addict, and founded a coffee shop where every employee is in recovery or is a family member of someone dealing with addiction. Her story could resonate in a part of Pennsylvania that’s been particularly hit by the opioid crisis.

If she wins her primary as expected, she’ll face off against first-term Rep. Susan Wild, who is also Jewish. The race is expected to be close — Cook ranks the district “Leans Democratic” — but Scheller will be able to rely on her own donations, as well as backing from outside groups like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s “Young Guns” candidate support program.

Renee Unterman, Republican from Georgia

Unterman, a health insurance executive and former mayor, is the only Jewish member of the Georgia state senate, where she’s represented parts of the Atlanta suburbs since 2003. She’s an outspoken conservative – she wrote an anti-abortion “heartbeat bill,” supports a border wall and has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. But she’s also shown she’s not afraid to buck members of her own party — in 2018, she called for an investigation into then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, over questionable campaign donations he had received. After a Kemp spokesman called her “mentally unstable,” she opened up about her history of depression and her son’s death by suicide. “I feel like it’s unusual to be a Republican and Jewish,” she told the Atlanta Jewish Times later that year. “But because of my background, I can connect with certain social issues I may not have if I wasn’t Jewish.”

The district is open due to the retirement of incumbent Republican Rep. Brad Goodall, who won the tightest congressional election in the country in 2018 by a margin of 419 votes; Cook rates the race a toss-up.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

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