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J Street takes aim at GOP senators who opposed Iran deal

Republicans ‘stood in the way’ during nuclear agreement debate; liberal policy group to back only Democrats in upcoming elections

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)
J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

WASHINGTON — J Street will focus this year on unseating Republican senators in Illinois and Wisconsin who led opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

In an interview with JTA on Friday, Ben Shnider, political director of the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, said the organization would focus on defeating Sen. Mark Kirk from Illinois and Sen. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin.

“They were two of the biggest detractors of the deal,” said Shnider, referring to the nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers. “Iran is being defanged, and they stood in the way.”

The deal, in which Iran gained relief from international sanctions in exchange for rolling back elements of its nuclear program, went into effect this weekend after UN inspectors confirmed Iran had met its obligations under the agreement.

J Street is backing former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who was ousted by Johnson in the 2010 Republican sweep. The group has yet to settle on an opponent to Kirk, although the candidate likely to emerge from the Illinois Democratic primary on March 15 is Rep. Tammy Duckworth, whom J Street has backed in the past for the US House of Representatives.

Kirk and Johnson are considered among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, serving swing states in a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is high.

J Street’s 2016 campaign, rolled out Friday on its political action committee’s website, includes 83 candidates who have agreed to accept the group’s endorsement — less than the 95 it endorsed in 2014, although Shnider said the group ultimately hopes to reach 110 endorsees.

A key aim of the roll-out is preempting attacks on Democrats who backed US President Barack Obama in his successful bid to stop Congress from killing the Iran deal. Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel officials said last summer that Democrats who backed the deal would be seen as vulnerable.

No such assault on Democrats who backed the deal has emerged yet, although NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, has been aggressive in raising funds for the minority of Democrats who opposed the deal, among them New York Reps. Eliot Engel and Grace Meng, California Rep. Brad Sherman, Florida Rep. Ted Deutch.

Despite the angry talk over the summer, it’s not clear whether deal backers truly are vulnerable.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which led opposition to the deal, last week released a video emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship in cultivating support for Israel. AIPAC does not endorse candidates, but its members closely read its messages to determine where their political donations go.

Deborah Saxon, AIPAC’s assistant director for policy and government affairs, says in the video that casting Israel as a partisan issue is “shortsighted.”

“When it comes to strengthening the US-Israel relationship, our work relies on the support of both political parties, and today it has never been more important than to forge that kind of bipartisan support,” Saxon says.

J Street’s list this year notably does not include any Republicans. Shnider said that the group and Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, its sole 2014 Republican endorsee running this year, had come to a mutual agreement to end the relationship.

Jones survived a well-funded onslaught against his 2014 bid by PACs associated with the Republic Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing group established in part to neutralize J Street.

Besides Feingold, J Street’s Jewish endorsees this year include: Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee; Rep. Susan Davis, a Democrat from California; Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat from California; Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois; Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky; and Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii.

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