The Jewish vote: Senate races to watch

The Jewish vote: Senate races to watch

From progressive mainstay Russ Feingold to assault rifle-assembling Jason Kander, Jews and Jewish issues figure prominently in several competitive contests

US Rep. Patrick Murphy, left, is taking on Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida in the 2016 race. (Getty Images via JTA)
US Rep. Patrick Murphy, left, is taking on Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida in the 2016 race. (Getty Images via JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hillary vs. Donald is sucking all the air out of the room.

Consider: The first woman major party nominee battling a reality TV star. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, bragging in a 2005 video about sexual assault, then denying it when a dozen women corroborate his braggadocio. The seemingly never-ending Hillary Clinton email scandal, with defrocked congressman and notorious sexter Anthony Weiner thrown in to boot. And so much more.

It’s been an amazing show so far, but it has also obscured important races down ticket, including a number with special Jewish significance — some because of Jewish candidates who may soon take the national stage or leave it – and some because of the prominence that a candidate has achieved on Israel-related issues.

We’ve used giving to political action committees, or PACs, as a barometer of support, but PACs are not the only measure. The Republican Jewish Coalition, for instance, has an affiliated PAC, but also encourages its board members to make political donations. Its director, Matt Brooks, says the result has been millions of dollars flowing both to campaigns and to super PACs, committees permitted to receive unlimited funds in support of or in opposition to candidates.

Here are three close Senate races to watch, and two more of interest because of what they could portend in coming elections:

Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican, vs. former Sen. Russ Feingold, Democrat

What’s at stake: Feingold was a popular three-term senator swept aside in 2010 by Johnson, a Tea Party candidate with plenty of money to spend. Now Feingold wants his seat back, and Democrats see it as a must-win if they are to retake the Senate. Democrats need four wins to take back the chamber if Hillary Clinton wins, five if she is defeated.

Russ Feingold, left, is trying to take back the Wisconsin Senate seat he lost to Ron Johnson, right, in 2010. (Darren Hauck/Getty Images via JTA)
Russ Feingold, left, is trying to take back the Wisconsin Senate seat he lost to Ron Johnson, right, in 2010. (Darren Hauck/Getty Images via JTA)

What it’s about, mostly: Free trade. Feingold, who is backed by Our Revolution, the organization set up by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, after he conceded the Democratic nomination to Clinton, opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Johnson authorized negotiations for the pact.

Why it’s news for Jews: With the impending retirement of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, Feingold is one of two Senate wannabes who would keep the Senate Jewish caucus at nine. More substantively, Feingold is that increasing rarity: an outspoken pro-Israel progressive. He’s backed by Bernie, as noted, but in 2011 he told his homestate Jewish newspaper, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, that the Palestinians need “to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist” before pressing for a Palestinian state.

The political action committee affiliated with J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy lobby, injected $250,000 into the race in recent weeks. The same PAC also has infused some late cash into other close Senate races – Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Hampshire. J Street wants to assume the mantle long held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: anointing candidates who vote their way on Israel, in this case, in support of the Iran deal. (AIPAC loyalists would say that J Street is betting on a number of candidates likely to win without them and, besides, AIPAC isn’t a political action committee that can raise and spend money on candidates.) Yet if a substantial majority of the 14 Democrats that J Street is endorsing for Senate are elected — there are five sure shots, seven close calls and two long shots — J Street is in a position to say the narrative has changed.

Where the polls are: Feingold is averaging 6 points ahead of Johnson, according to the RealClearPolitics aggregate.

Where the PACS are: Johnson has received contributions from right-of-center political action committees, including the Republican Jewish Coalition PAC and Washington PAC. Feingold, as noted, has JStreetPAC’s backing.

The Trumpometer: Johnson supports Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but will not endorse him – a parsing that some find confusing, but at least suggests that he’s not enamored of the nominee.

Illinois: Sen. Mark Kirk, Republican, vs. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat

What’s at stake: Kirk until recently was seen as must-win if Republicans are to retain the Senate. He’s also that fast-disappearing creature, a moderate Republican, and moderates in the party are eager to preserve the species after years of battering by the Tea Party and then by Trump.

Illinois Senate seat rivals Tammy Duckworth and Mark Kirk shaking hands following their debate at the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 3, 3016. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images/via JTA)
Illinois Senate seat rivals Tammy Duckworth and Mark Kirk shaking hands following their debate at the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 3, 3016. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images/via JTA)

What it’s about, mostly: Deeply personal. There are policy differences between Kirk and Duckworth, but this race, perhaps because it’s seen as must-win in both camps, is extraordinarily bitter. Kirk in ads has suggested Duckworth is corrupt, citing a lawsuit against Duckworth dating from her stint heading the state’s veterans agency in which two whistle-blowing staffers alleged they were targeted for retaliation. (The case was settled this summer, with the agency not admitting wrongdoing.) Duckworth has spotlighted Kirk’s past exaggerations about his service in the US Navy Reserve. (Kirk apologized in 2010.) Both candidates are also disabled: Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 that left him largely paralyzed on his left side; Duckworth, who served in the US National Guard, lost both legs and the use of her right arm when her helicopter was hit by rocket fire in Iraq in 2004.

A debate Thursday evening showed how deeply personal the race has become. Duckworth, whose mother is Thai and father was an American who served in the US Army, touted her military experience by saying her family “served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution.” Kirk replied, to stunned silence: “I forgot that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” Kirk apologized the next day on Twitter.

Why it’s news for Jews: Kirk, first as a congressman and since winning President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat in 2010, took a lead role in shaping the sanctions that forced Iran to talks on curtailing its nuclear ambitions. He has been among the most strident critics of the deal exchanging sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback since it was reached last year. Kirk has accused the Obama administration of giving Iran a pass on parts of the agreement, which administration spokespeople vehemently deny. Duckworth, backed by J Street, has been an enthusiastic backer of the agreement.

Where the polls are: The RealClearPolitics aggregate shows Duckworth ahead by 7 points.

Where the PACs are: J Street has so far directed more than $145,000 to Duckworth, her second most generous PAC donor after Emily’s List, the feminist PAC. Similarly, Kirk’s top PAC donor is NORPAC, a mainstream pro-Israel political action committee that has sent nearly $129,000 to the incumbent. NORPAC takes its messaging cues from AIPAC. The Republican Jewish Coalition has urged its board members to give to Kirk and to encourage others to do the same. Its director, Brooks, estimates that fundraising to Kirk by RJC board members has topped $500,000, with $250,000 raised at a single event hosted by a board member.

Much funding bypasses PACs.

The Trumpometer: Kirk is among incumbent Republicans who say they cannot vote for Trump. He will write in David Petraeus, the former CIA director.

Missouri: Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican, vs. Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, Democrat

What’s at stake: No one expected Missouri to be in play, and the fact that it is shows how perilous this year’s election is for Republicans down ticket. Blunt is a Missouri Republican institution, having risen to majority leader, for a brief period, in the US House of Representatives. One of his sons was the state’s governor in the 2000s. His defeat would be seen as a blow to the party’s establishment. Kander, unusually for a Democrat, has run as an outsider against the ultimate Washington insider and jokes about drawing both Clinton and Trump followers to his rallies.

Democrat Jason Kander, left, is challenging longtime Republican Sen. Roy Blunt for a Missouri Senate seat in the 2016 race. (Getty Images via JTA)
Democrat Jason Kander, left, is challenging longtime Republican Sen. Roy Blunt for a Missouri Senate seat in the 2016 race. (Getty Images via JTA)

What it’s about, mostly: The outsider vs. the insider. Kander, a US Army National Guard veteran, has focused laser-like on that theme. An ad last month in which Kander assembles an assault rifle blindfolded and challenges Blunt to do the same has propelled his campaign to within striking distance of unseating Blunt. The incumbent’s response has been scattershot, attempting to tie Kander to Clinton on health care, immigration and gun issues. Blunt’s wife and three of his children are lobbyists, burnishing Kander’s outsider credentials. Also playing into the new blood vs. old blood narrative: Kander is 35 and Blunt is 66.

Why it’s news for Jews: Kander is Jewish – bizarrely, he’s not the only youthful Jewish vet running for statewide office in Missouri as an outsider challenging the system. Eric Greitens, 42, a Republican former Navy SEAL who defeated insiders in a grueling primary, is facing Chris Koster, the Democratic state attorney general, in the race for governor. That race is neck and neck. (Kander served in Afghanistan, Greitens in Iraq.) Kander enjoys unusually impressive yichus for a Missouri pol – his great uncle, John Kander, who has said they are “very close,” is half of the legendary Kander and Ebb Broadway songwriting team behind “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” With Feingold, he has a shot at keeping Jewish Democratic representation at nine or even increasing it to 10.

Kander also holds the minority view within his party on the Iran nuclear deal – he doesn’t think it’s working out, he recently told Jewish Insider. However, he’s also of the “what’s done is done” school and, unlike Republicans who want dismantle it, Kander wants to see its restrictions rigorously applied. His election would shore up hawkish pro-Israel Democrats within a party that has been at odds in recent years with Israel’s government and the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel communities. That’s important to groups like AIPAC that until recently have relied on Jewish lawmakers to pitch a hawkish posture on Israel. That’s key, and it’s why J Street has been energetic in cultivating Jewish lawmakers — Congress tends to defer to its members belonging to the ethnicity/religion/gender/race/regional group most affected by an issue.

Blunt has been close to the pro-Israel community for decades. As House leader he led trips to Israel for GOP freshmen. He also has been out front in introducing pro-Israel legislation and has been a constant at Republican Jewish Coalition events. His second wife, Abigail Perlman, is Jewish.

Where the polls are: The RealClearPolitics aggregate has Blunt up by just 1 point.

Where the PACs are: Pro-Israel giving has not registered as a factor in this race, which is not surprising considering that it’s win-win for the mainstream community. (J Street does not back Kander.) Both parties in recent weeks have diverted funds from races in Ohio and Florida, where incumbent Republicans have pulled away from their Democratic challengers in races once considered tight, to invest in Missouri.

The Trumpometer: Blunt backs Trump, but this is not a problem in a state where the Republican nominee is doing well – as evidenced by Kander’s direct appeals to Trump voters to back him as an outsider while simultaneously condemning Trump.

Florida: Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican, vs. Rep. Patrick Murphy, Democrat

Florida and Georgia are not close, but are worth watching because of what each portends for each party when it comes to Israel policy: Republicans moving to the right and Democrats to the left.

Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio appears headed for reelection, although for a period Rep. Patrick Murphy seemed to be closing in.

Rubio made clear he wanted out of the Senate until the party pressured him to reconsider when it appeared it could lose the state — a turnabout Murphy has used against him.

His return to politics restores the prospect of a presidential run – and that’s music to the ears of right-wing pro-Israel activists for whom Rubio is a favorite son. He is fluent on Israel and the threats it faces, and has backed an array of pro-Israel initiatives in Congress. Most recently, he would not sign on to a letter circulated by AIPAC calling on Obama to refrain from lame duck pressure on Israel because it explicitly called for a two-state solution, a position that the right-wing pro-Israel community has been pressuring the Republicans to play down.

Georgia: Sen. Johnny Isakson, Republican, vs. Jim Barksdale, Democrat

Isakson is likely set for reelection against Barksdale, a multimillionaire investor with deep roots in the state. For a while the seat was seen as contestable.

Jim Barksdale, left, is challenging incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson in the 2016 race. (Getty Images via JTA)
Jim Barksdale, left, is challenging incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson in the 2016 race. (Getty Images via JTA)

Barksdale is about as far left as one gets on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that silence is “complicity” when it comes to Palestine. He toured the West Bank in 2010 with Interfaith Peace Builders, a group that has ties to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

J Street did not back Barksdale, which is notable. Insiders there tell me it’s because he wasn’t seen as having much of a shot. But that could be said at one point or another of about half of the group’s endorsees. It would seem there is a new genus: a viable Democrat too far left for J Street to back.

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