The stunning news of Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent victory in a closely watched special election for a congressional district in southwestern Pennsylvania sent Jewish Democrats into an unlikely spree of excitement.
Lamb’s razor-thin 600-vote win came in a district with relatively few Jewish voters and where Jewish concerns played little or no role.
Still, the fresh-faced political neophyte’s ability to win in a seat that Donald Trump carried by 19 percentage points gave a huge boost to dozens of Jewish candidates running in districts that seem much more winnable than the one Lamb snatched.
“It’s awesome,” said Kathy Manning, who is running in a central North Carolina district held by freshman Republican Ted Budd. “It’s incredibly exciting and it bodes well for the future.”
Democrats are hoping to retake control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm election by flipping at least 24 seats. They’ll need to post upset wins like the one Lamb scored in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, the one Manning hopes to pull off in North Carolina, and a grab bag of other districts in suburban and rural areas that swung hard to Trump in 2016 but may be having buyer’s remorse about the mercurial leader.
Could the “blue wave” many pundits are predicting bring with it a “Jew wave” of new Jewish representatives? It’s possible, Democrats say.
Manning, who was the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America, is running in a district that stretches south from Democratic Greensboro through solidly Republican rural counties. Budd won by a 16-percentage point margin, but former president Barack Obama won there in his 2008 landslide, and Trump carried the district by a relatively narrow 53%-to-44% vote.
Trump won Lamb’s Pennsylvania district by twice that margin, giving hope to Manning, especially when analysts note that heavy Democratic turnout helped drive Lamb’s win.
“Every time there’s a race in which a Democrat wins against the odds, we see a rise in fundraising numbers,” she said, adding that “people are excited” when they see that winning is possible.
The current House of Representatives includes 21 Jewish Democrats and two Jewish Republicans.
Even if the GOP does better than expected in November, the 2018 midterms have already drawn a record number of Jewish candidates running on the Democratic side, said Ron Klein, a former Florida congressman who now heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
The reason isn’t hard to identify. The man in the White House has pushed many Democrats into action.
“Many have been driven by Trump,” Klein said. “People are tired of throwing their shoes at the TV.”
Klein believes results of the Pennsylvania special elections on Tuesday indicate a trend marked by disillusioned Trump voters who are now willing to “give a look at who else is running” and consider crossing party lines.
Still, Jewish candidates, many of whom are running in districts that do not have a significant Jewish population, are careful not to overemphasize Trump. After all, their ability to win — like Lamb — rests on winning over voters who pulled the lever for him in 2016.
“It’s not what I talk about and it’s not what people want to talk about,” Manning said. Instead, she explained, people want to discuss “kitchen table issues” such as health care, and are looking for candidates who can address their concerns on these issues.
One Jewish Democrat who is taking a different route is Laura Moser, a progressive writer and activist. She is appealing to left-leaning Democrats in an affluent suburban Houston district that is a key Democratic target because it voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Moser, who has faced attacks from party establishment for being too liberal for the district, has advanced to her party’s primary runoff. If she wins, she will face longtime incumbent Republican John Culberson.
In Virginia, former Navy commander Elaine Luria is still battling in a crowded Democratic primary field. If she wins, she will take on Republican Scott Taylor in the coastal district centered on Virginia Beach. Taylor romped to victory there, but Trump won by a slim 3% margin. And Virginia last year shifted dramatically to Democrats in statewide races, shaking up the political scene and making more Democratic gains seem likely.
A tough primary fight is expected for Shira Goodman, a Pennsylvania lawyer who decided to enter the race for a newly drawn district in the Philadelphia suburbs shortly before the Parkland, Florida, shooting and has made gun control legislation one of her key campaign issues. She is battling several well-known political names in the district based in increasingly Democratic Montgomery County.
Democrats are counting on picking up that district, most of which was represented by retiring Rep. Ed Meehan, and at least three others in Pennsylvania after a court ordered a new congressional map to replace one it said was gerrymandered to boost Republicans.
Several Republican-held seats are also in danger in Southern California, where Trump is extremely unpopular.
Florida’s 16th district hasn’t seen a Democrat win since 2006, and Rep. Vern Buchanan won by a healthy 20 percentage point margin. Now, David Shapiro, a Sarasota lawyer, is hoping to swing the Gulf Coast district blue, noting that Trump’s margin was just half that.
On the flip side, Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin could bear the brunt of a “blue wave” if voters view the midterms as a referendum on Trump’s presidency.
Zeldin, a staunch conservative and Trump backer, won his Eastern Long Island district by a healthy 16-point margin. But his district — a mix of suburban towns, wealthy beach enclaves and conservative farm country, would seem to be ripe for flipping.
Democrats have already listed Zeldin’s district as a target and are pouring money into the race in an attempt to win over the seat. Trump won the district by 12 percentage points. “Zeldin in particular stands out as someone who may be a key Democratic target,” the GOP-leaning Rasmussen polling group noted in a recent memo.
Back in southwestern Pennsylvania, Jewish Democrats were toasting Lamb’s victory. Even though there are only an estimated 11,000 Jewish voters in the 18th district that Lamb won, there are more Jews in the newly drawn 17th district, where Lamb is likely to run in the fall.
That district was almost a dead heat between Trump and Clinton, meaning the Jewish vote in Pittsburgh’s suburbs could play a key role.
Even on Tuesday night, when Lamb’s victory margin came down to fewer than 700 votes, the Jewish mobilization may have made a difference.
Joel Rubin, a native of Pittsburgh and himself a candidate for Maryland’s House of Delegates, published an op-ed calling on local Jews to vote for Lamb, and JDCA invested thousands of dollars in ads supporting the Democratic candidate.
“Jewish donors are motivated to vote with their pocketbooks and to vote with their volunteering for the campaign,” Klein said. ““Every vote in important in such a close race.”
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.