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The House: Dems Count on Jewish Candidates

As Democrats seek to pick up 15 seats to win control of the House of Representatives, they are counting on several of the dozen or so Jewish candidates fighting to replace Republican incumbents.

According to polls, the most likely Democratic pick-up is in Arizona’s eighth district, where state lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords — great-granddaughter of a Lithuanian rabbi —holds a commanding lead over Republican Randy Graf in the race for the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe.

In one of the year’s most expensive and competitive races, State Senator Ron Klein is fighting to unseat Republican Clay Shaw in Florida’s 22nd congressional district, an area that includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties and has one of the country’s highest concentration of Jewish votes. Klein’s candidacy has been buoyed in recent weeks by the scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley — the disgraced Republican who represented an adjoining district. Klein has been particularly effective at turning the race into a referendum on the Iraq war, which he argues has made Israel less safe.

Other competitive Jewish challengers include Steve Kagen, who is in a toss-up race against Republican John Gard for the open seat in Wisconsin’s eighth district; Paul Hodes, who is challenging Republican Charlie Bass in New Hampshire’s second district, and Ellen Simon, whose race against Rick Renzi in Arizona’s first district has been viewed as increasingly competitive.

Two candidates have the potential to make history as their states’ first Jewish representatives: John Yarmuth, who is challenging Rep. Anne Northrup in Kentucky’s third district, and Gary Trauner, who is running for Wyoming’s single House seat, once occupied by Vice President Dick Cheney. Polls had Trauner trailing — until late October when libertarian wheelchair-bound candidate Thomas Renkin claimed that the Republican incumbent, Rep. Barbara Cubin, threatened to slap him after a debate.

A long-shot candidate to watch in the event of a massive Democratic sweep is Paul Aronsohn, who is running against conservative Republican Scott Garrett in New Jersey’s fifth district.

Fighting Fords in Tenn.

While national observers focus on the closely fought Senate race of Tennessee Democrat Rep. Harold Ford Jr. — who stands to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction — a racially charged contest continues to unfold in Ford’s old Memphis congressional district. The city’s black religious leaders have rigorously opposed the candidacy of veteran Democratic lawmaker Steve Cohen, who has represented the heavily African American area for more than two decades in the State Senate. Cohen’s race and religion were both at issue during this summer’s crowded primary contest, which featured calls for a “unity” black candidate and one opponent charging that Cohen only wants to join the Congressional Black Caucus to “get money for Israel.”

If he prevails in the general election, Cohen, a liberal, would make history as Tennessee’s first Jewish congressional representative and as the first white politician to represent large portions of Memphis since the mid-1960s. First he has to beat Ford’s brother, Jake Ford, a high school dropout who is running as an independent. The family patriarch, Harold Ford Sr., who held the seat for nearly two decades, until 1996, is said to be masterminding the fight against Cohen.

Minn. Set for Muslim First

The congressional race in heavily Democratic Minneapolis is one of the country’s least competitive, but most plagued with controversy and scandal. If elected, Democratic state lawmaker Keith Ellison would become the first Muslim member of Congress, but some have argued that Ellison’s past association with the Nation of Islam tarnishes the milestone. Foremost among the critics is Ellison’s opponent, Alan Fine, who is the only Jewish Republican challenging for a Democratic seat in Congress this month. In recent weeks, Fine has been no stranger to controversy. It was revealed that he was accused of domestic violence in 1995, though the charge was later expunged from his record.

Flaps Plague Arizona Pol

After six terms in Congress, Scottsdale, Ariz., Republican J.D. Hayworth is among this month’s cohort of vulnerable incumbents. While his district is populated with moderate Republicans, Hayworth is a Christian conservative who strongly opposes illegal immigration, abortion rights and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. His race against Democrat Harry Mitchell is generally seen as a toss-up.

Despite his strong support for Israel, and backing from Jewish Republicans across the country, Hayworth’s race has been plagued by a series of missteps that may cost him precious Jewish votes. The lawmaker came under criticism last summer after the publication of his new book, which touts automaker Henry Ford’s pro-assimilation antisemitic beliefs on immigration. Then, last month, a Jewish spokesman representing Hayworth at a candidates’ forum drew jeers and sparked a mass walkout when he claimed that Hayworth’s opposition to abortion rights makes him “a more observant Jew” than the liberal audience members.

Mitchell, meanwhile, has made much campaign fodder out of Hayworth’s ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Endangered Incumbent in Ind.

Considered the House’s most endangered incumbent by election analysts, six-term Indiana Republican John Hostettler has drawn the ire of both pro-Israel activists and church-state advocates. The lawmaker, swept into office during the Republican Revolution of 1994, has voted consistently against foreign aid to Israel, prompting several pro-Israel political action committees to take the unusual step of supporting a challenger, who in this race is Democrat Brad Ellsworth.

A Christian conservative representing a district in the southwest corner of the state, Hostettler also has come under fire for marshaling Republicans against a set of tough new guidelines for the military after a 2005 report on the U.S. Air Force Academy showed widespread proselytizing and religious discrimination there.

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