Pennsylvania in focus: The US midterm races Jewish Americans are watching closely

From Shapiro-Mastriano to Zeldin-Hochul, a look at November 8 matchups featuring Jewish and Israel-linked candidates, in some cases against rivals accused of antisemitism

This combination of photos shows Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Attorney General Josh Shapiro on June 29, 2022, in Philadelphia, left, and Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano on September 29, 2022, in Erie, Pennsylvania, right. (AP Photo)
This combination of photos shows Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Attorney General Josh Shapiro on June 29, 2022, in Philadelphia, left, and Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano on September 29, 2022, in Erie, Pennsylvania, right. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Consider two races in Pennsylvania.

For governor of the US state, a Jewish Democrat whose ads show off his Shabbat observance is squaring off against a far-right Republican who platforms Christian nationalists and has ties to an outspoken antisemite.

For Congress in the 7th District — which has a relatively low ratio of Jewish residents — two female Jewish candidates are going head-to-head: One is a Democrat who had her bat mitzvah in Israel as an adult, the other is a Republican Hebrew speaker who has donated at least $1 million to a university in the Jewish state.

The Pennsylvania stories represent the two streams of Jewish significance about the election cycle leading up to the nationwide US vote on Tuesday.

On one hand, an array of candidates are courting antisemitic supporters in ways that have been unimaginable for decades, as a string of high-profile antisemitism controversies threatens to turn into a moment of renewed violence against Jews.

On the other hand, the cycle also features multiple candidates who are proudly Jewish in ways that their political predecessors were hesitant to express.

Here’s a closer look at several of the races that offer a snapshot of the Jewish stakes in the election next week.

Josh Shapiro v. Doug Mastriano

Pennsylvania governor

Pennsylvania is often described as a state bound by two liberal enclaves — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — sandwiching a conservative, rural middle. One reliable way for big-city politicians to reach the heartland is to wear their faith and “family values” on their sleeves, and that’s what Josh Shapiro, the state’s Philadelphia-based Democratic attorney general, did in his first ad: This is a guy, the ad conveys, who made sure to be home by Shabbat to spend time with his family.

Screen capture from video of Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro with his family at a Shabbat dinner table. (YouTube)

Shapiro’s ad stood out because Jewish candidates have rarely placed their Jewish observance at the forefront of their general campaign (as opposed to campaigning within the Jewish community, where they will talk up their Jewish involvement). Shapiro bet that Pennsylvanians would understand challah on the table to be as meaningful as a Christmas tree in the corner.

It may be working — Shapiro is substantially leading his Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano. But a classic campaign tactic is to weaponize your opponent’s strength, and Mastriano has cast Shapiro’s children’s attendance at a Jewish day school as “elite” and “privileged.”

Mastriano, who was former US president Donald Trump’s favored candidate in the primary and who was in Washington during last year’s January 6 insurrection, insists there is no malicious intent — he noted that in his attack on Shapiro he does not identify the school as Jewish. But Mastriano had already earned plenty of Jewish skepticism by paying Gab, the far-right social media site owned by admitted antisemite Andrew Torba, to promote his campaign on the platform. He then accepted a donation to his campaign from Torba after ostensibly cutting ties with him and condemning antisemitism.

FILE – State Senator Doug Mastriano, Republican gubernatorial candidate, stands as the national anthem is sung during a campaign event at the Deja Vu Social Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September, 30, 2022. (Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)

Mastriano has become a poster child for the Democratic push to label Republicans as a party of extremists, and in many cases, antisemites. The Republican Jewish Coalition expressed concerns about Mastriano’s failure to fully distance himself from Torba, a rare instance of a partisan Jewish group calling out a candidate from its party.

The controversy has continued. One of his advisers said last week that Shapiro was not authentically Jewish. And when an Israeli reporter asked Mastriano about his Jewish controversies, his wife said that the family loves Israel even “more” than Jews love Israel.

Kathy Hochul v. Lee Zeldin

New York governor

Rep. Lee Zeldin was considered a longshot when he announced a bid for governor of one of the East Coast’s most liberal states. The Jewish Long Islander was an avid defender of Donald Trump during his presidency, and the former president is reviled in his home state. Zeldin voted against certifying Biden for president on January 6 and has opposed abortion rights.

But Zeldin, who has Trump’s endorsement, has hammered Governor Kathy Hochul on rising crime in New York and is now within striking distance, according to polls.

Republican candidate for New York Governor Lee Zeldin participates in a debate against incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul hosted by Spectrum News NY1, October 25, 2022, at Pace University in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, Pool)

As one of only two Jewish Republicans in the US House of Representatives, Zeldin has carved out a space for himself as one of Congress’s most vocal pro-Israel voices and is a member of Jewish congressional groups. He has earned significant Jewish community support, including millions of dollars from Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and heir to the Estee Lauder fortune.

But his inroads among the state’s ultra-Orthodox communities have led headlines in recent weeks. After a New York Times article spotlighted the controversy over Haredi yeshivas’ secular education practices, Zeldin pledged to support them, making the topic a key campaign issue in Brooklyn.

“People feel that Hochul has been silent on this issue,” an anonymous insider told the New York Jewish Week in a recent report. “They feel that Zeldin has been very vocal and hopefully when he becomes governor he’ll continue with that.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaks during a news conference in New York, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Elaine Luria v. Jen Kiggans and Elissa Slotkin v. Tom Barrett

House seats in Virginia and Michigan

In 2019, five freshmen female Democrats in swing districts rose to national prominence when they opposed impeaching Trump — then changed their minds. Their decisions gave Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, the green light to start the proceedings.

They were called the “badass caucus,” partially due to the fact that all five had served in the military or intelligence communities. Two of them are Jewish, and unabashedly so. Elissa Slotkin, a CIA veteran in Michigan’s 7th District, has been out front on Holocaust education legislation. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander in Virginia’s 2nd District, ran an ad holding a weathered Hebrew bible as she explained why she backed impeachment.

Both are now in extremely tight races to stay in office.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Demcrat-Michigan, questions witnesses during a House Committee on Homeland Security on Capitol Hill, Washington, September 17, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)

Slotkin is facing Tom Barrett, a state senator who has peddled some of Trump’s 2020 election lies. Although she even has the backing of Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, Slotkin is battling anti-incumbent anger at inflation; most polls give her a slight lead, but some have her behind.

Luria — who is getting hit for serving on the House January 6 committee (alongside Cheney), which her rival says is a distraction — is locked in an even tighter race, what most outlets are calling a 50-50 dead heat.

Susan Wild v. Lisa Scheller

House seat in Pennsylvania

Rep. Susan Wild, like Slotkin and Luria, is another female Jewish Democrat in a swing district who is facing a Trump-endorsed candidate. Other similarities: all three districts were redrawn and now are slightly more favorable to Republicans and all three races have drawn in millions in contributions to both parties. Polls rate this one as a toss-up, too.

All three women have also risen rapidly in Democratic ranks since their election in 2018 — Wild was just named chairwoman of the House Ethics committee, one of the most sensitive leadership roles, in a sign that she has the trust of Nancy Pelosi.

Susan Wild, Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, delivers a speech after defeating her opponent on November 6, 2018, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

There is one key Jewish difference in this race, though: Wild is facing another Jewish candidate who has also emphasized her Jewishness in her campaign.

Lisa Scheller, a businesswoman, has initiated a 2020 rematch and a rare Jew-on-Jew battle (there are only two other such races this cycle, and neither is competitive). What’s even more unusual is that the 7th District, which runs along the border with northern New Jersey and includes Allentown, is not known as a particularly Jewish hub — there are perhaps 10,000 Jews, out of a total population of over 700,000.

In 2020, they geared one of their debates for the Jewish community, talking about issues such as Israel and antisemitism. Both have emphasized ties to Israel: Scheller, a Hebrew speaker, maintains a home in the Jewish state and has given more than $1 million to Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Wild, whose first husband was Jewish, decided to convert when her son wanted a bar mitzvah. She then had her own bat mitzvah ceremony alongside her daughter in Israel.

If elected, Scheller, who has Trump’s endorsement, would likely bring GOP Jewish representation in the House to three, for the first time in decades. David Kustoff, a Tennessee incumbent, and Max Miller, running in an open seat in Ohio, are both likely to win.

Lisa Scheller, Republican Party candidate for Pennsylvania’s 7th US Congressional District, attends the grand opening of Hope and Coffee, in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, July 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

Kari Lake v. Katie Hobbs

Arizona governor

Arizona has an active and engaged Jewish community, one that’s growing as more Jewish families head to the sunbelt. A 2019 survey found that the Jewish population in Maricopa County, the state’s largest and where Phoenix is situated, had grown by 19 percent since 2002.

There are about 115,000 Jews in the state — enough to swing this purple state’s closely-watched state-wide elections either way. US President Joe Biden flipped Arizona blue in 2020, and Republicans want it back. Arizona’s Jews trend more conservative than Jews do nationwide, which might be a plus for Republicans in the state.

What’s likely not a plus in the eyes of the community is that the four Republicans in top statewide races, for governor, US senator, attorney general and secretary of state have all had associations with antisemites and antisemitism.

Kari Lake, a former TV newscaster who was a registered Democrat until Trump’s 2016 election galvanized her, is running against Katie Hobbs, the Democrat who is the incumbent secretary of state. Much of the campaign has focused on election integrity, with Lake embracing some of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. But her new friends have at times caused trouble.

Last year, she posed for a photo with a Nazi sympathizer and told him on Twitter: “It was a pleasure to meet you, too!” She endorsed and then withdrew her endorsement of an Oklahoma candidate who called Jews “evil.”

Republican nominee for Arizona governor Kari Lake speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, August 6, 2022. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images via JTA)

Mark Finchem, running for secretary of state, has proudly accepted Gab founder Andrew Torba’s endorsement, and the Phoenix Jewish Community Relations Council in September criticized him for spreading “antisemitic tropes” by claiming Democrats are controlled by George Soros and Mike Bloomberg, both Jewish megadonors. Finchem refuted a charge of antisemitism by declaring “I love the Jews,” but he has also frequently employed language calling his opponents “Marxists,” a charge that, historically, antisemites dating back to Great Depression-era radio preacher Father Coughlin have directed at liberal or secular Jews.

In the wake of it all, Lake — who has similarly brought up Soros and Bloomberg and has not denounced Finchem’s tarnished campaign — has struggled to shake accusations that she is cozy with antisemites. She nevertheless holds a slight lead as of this week.

The Arizona controversy doesn’t stop there, however. Blake Masters is the Trump-endorsed candidate for Senate who hopes to unseat Democrat Mark Kelly, the former astronaut who is married to Gabrielle Giffords — the Jewish congresswoman shot at an event in 2011. Jewish Insider uncovered an article Masters wrote in 2006 for a publication in which he cites a “poignant” quote by Nazi official Hermann Goering. The publication is owned by Lew Rockwell, a libertarian who is believed to have written content for one-time Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul that included racist and antisemitic tropes. Kelly held a wide lead earlier in the race, but that is no longer the case.

Then there’s Abraham Hamadeh, another Trump endorsee who disputed the 2020 election and who is running in a close race for attorney general. He posted antisemitic comments as a teenager on a forum for supporters of Paul, the same politician who Masters admired as a young man. Hamadeh’s campaign has said the comments were the rantings of a teenager and that he should not be judged by them.

Illustrative: Adam Laxalt (left) seeks to unseat incumbent Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat. (AP Photo/John Locher and Mariam Zuhaib)

Catherine Cortez Masto v. Adam Laxalt

Nevada Senate seat

Nevada’s Jewish population is also growing and could also play the role of decider in Tuesday’s elections — to the extent that Jewish partisan groups are spending time and money in the state targeting Jewish voters.

The state is hosting one of the country’s closest Senate races, between incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt, a former attorney general. Again, antisemitism is an issue in this campaign.

The Anti-Defamation League called Laxalt an extremist for his ties to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association fringe group. Last weekend, Jewish Insider revealed that a former staffer for Laxalt, using a pseudonym, “LaxaltStan,” tweeted out bigoted comments about Jews, women and the LGBTQ community. Laxalt’s campaign said the staffer left the campaign in August and condemned his account’s “bigoted opinions.” The spokesman did not explain why the staffer left the campaign.

Cortez Masto convened a campaign event on Monday with Nevada’s other senator, Jacky Rosen, a Jewish Democrat, to call for greater condemnation of antisemitism.

Also on the ballot in Nevada is Sigal Chattah, a Republican who is seeking to unseat Aaron Ford as attorney general — and in the process become the first Israeli American elected to statewide office in the United States. Chattah has leaned into her Israel identity in her campaigning; her other claim to fame is leading legal battles to remove coronavirus restrictions.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, speaks at the J Street National Conference, with the hosts of “Pod Save the World,” October 28, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Michael Bennet v. Joe O’Dea

Colorado Senate seat

Michael Bennet, first elected to the Senate in 2008, is a moderate Democrat who has survived other anti-incumbent seasons in his swing state. He has also in his campaigning noted his mother’s status as a Holocaust survivor and how it has shaped him, although he won’t say if he identifies as Jewish today.

What’s intriguing about this cycle is that the state’s Republicans broke with their party’s national trend and nominated a moderate anti-Trump Republican, Joe O’Dea, to unseat him.

It may not work — Bennet is still leading O’Dea outside the margin of error.

Colorado has two other Jewish Democrats running for stateside reelection: Jared Polis, the state’s first openly gay governor, and Phil Weiser, like Bennet, the child of a Holocaust survivor who has made combating antisemitism a key theme of his first term. Both are favored for reelection.

Eric Lynn v. Anna Paulina Luna

House seat in Florida

Eric Lynn, who has been a member of the Tampa-area Jewish community since childhood, was not given much of a shot when he launched a campaign in the 13th District.

Held for more than 40 years by Bill Young, a moderate Republican, Charlie Crist won the district for Democrats in 2016, partially because he was a former Republican governor who allied with moderate Democrats after switching parties.

Then, after Crist said he was retiring from Congress to take another shot at the governor’s mansion, Florida Republicans redrew the district to make it more Republican. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated it as likely to flip to Republican.

Now Lynn, a former Pentagon official who helped shepherd through funding for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile program, is defying expectations. Recent polls have him in a dead heat with his rival Anna Paulina Luna.

In an interview, Lynn said one of his advantages has been Luna’s extreme positions on abortion and her avid embrace of Trump and his lies about the 2020 election, as well as her alignment with a minority of Republicans in Congress who opposed the PACT Act, which expands benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits. Opponents say the bill expands government bureaucracy, but it’s not an argument that goes down well in a veteran-heavy district.

“Even though Ron DeSantis drew this illegally gerrymandered district in a way that favors Republicans by six points, we are now tied 46-46 because Republicans and independents are voting for Eric Lynn, because Anna Luna is too extreme,” Lynn said on Wednesday. He noted that he earned the endorsement of Young’s widow, Beverly.

It probably hasn’t hurt that his cousin, Justin Ishbia, the billionaire founder of a Chicago area private equity firm, has paid $5 million into a political action committee that has spent $7 million in the race, including close to $5 million on negative ads targeting Luna. That makes Ishbia one of the top 40 donors this cycle.

Luna has campaigned with Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has infuriated Jewish groups with her promiscuous comparison of the Holocaust to policies she doesn’t like and her invocation of antisemitic tropes.

Luna was baffled when Jewish Insider asked her whether the Greene association would alienate Jews. “MTG did endorse me, and I was raised as a Messianic Jew by my father,” she said. “I am also a small fraction Ashkenazi. If she were antisemitic, why did she endorse me?”

Most Popular
read more: