Election 98: Impeachment cloud hovering over Jewish issues, hopefuls

WASHINGTON — With the Monica Lewinsky scandal dominating the landscape, top Jewish political activists are calling this fall's national election the "Melrose Place" campaign.

And just like devotees to the steamy night-time soap, voters will be on the edge of their seats until the final episode.

Before President Clinton admitted to an improper relationship with the former White House intern, the election was shaping up to be the least engaging of the decade. But now all bets are off in the last federal campaign of the century.

"The only thing for sure is that anyone who tells you that they know what is going to happen doesn't know what they're talking about," said Michael Bloomfield, political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election Nov. 3. But unlike other campaigns in the 1990s that saw record turnover, there are only 34 seats with no incumbent running, and only another couple of dozen truly competitive races.

In the Senate, 34 members — including four of the 10 Jewish members — are battling across the country to be heard over the debate surrounding the president's sex scandal and possible impeachment.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Jew from Greenbrae whose liberal positions appeal to many Jews, faces a stiff challenge from state Treasurer Matt Fong, who has ingratiated himself to many Jews through his work on the Swiss bank settlement for Holocaust survivors.

Overall, activists argue that much is at stake for the Jewish community in the new 106th Congress.

In addition to critical domestic issues — including a host of spending concerns — the next Congress is likely to determine the future of the refugee program for Jews from the former Soviet Union, and play a critical role in shaping U.S. public opinion when the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks reach their deadline in May.

Inside the Washington Beltway, self-imposed Republican term limits for committee and subcommittee chairs will kick in, once again changing the dynamics of key committees that shape legislation of paramount concern to the Jewish community.

Significant political upheaval is also likely from a Republican battle to succeed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is also slated to step down sometime during the next Congress. Democratic leadership posts are also up for grabs during the next two years.

With Election Day less than three weeks away, uncertainty abounds over the presidential scandal's impact.

Democrats are praying for a backlash against Republicans for their handling of the impeachment investigation. At the same time, Republicans are hoping that Democratic voters, depressed by the presidential scandal, will stay home.

According to early October polls, however, the election may not shape up to be a referendum on Clinton's sex life, and Democrats have not told pollsters that they plan to stay home. The number of likely voters, however, consistently favors Republican candidates in the closest House and Senate races.

The polls also show that Democrats cannot retake control of the House, where the Republicans now hold a 228-206 majority. There is one independent member. The Republicans control 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate, but they will likely fall short of securing a filibuster-proof 60 seat majority.

The chances of success for Jewish candidates are mixed.

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are heavy favorites to win re-election. Republicans and Democrats alike believe that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) could lose his seat.

And in the political equivalent of a heavyweight championship bout, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) is facing off against Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish. Both candidates are making major plays for Jewish support in the election. D'Amato is running what is believed to be the first political ad featuring footage from the Holocaust to highlight his role in securing the recent $1.25 billion settlement from Switzerland's leading banks.

Most Jewish incumbents in the House are running strong in their races, with the notable exception of Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), who has served in the House since 1983.

Israel is not a predominant issue in the congressional races, said Morris Amitay, the treasurer and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

"There is no real grabber race on Israel," he said.

While many voters might not pull the lever based only on concern for Israel, candidates continue to capitalize on their support for the Jewish state.

"We are writing to ask for your urgent support of one of America's most important new pro-Israel leaders," wrote AIPAC board chairman Melvin Dow and former chairman Larry Weinberg in a private letter soliciting support for Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman.

Sherman, a freshman member of the House from Woodland Hills in Southern California, won election in 1996 with 51 percent of the vote.

"Returning Brad Sherman to the United States Congress is an important means of strengthening support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Brad has been there when we needed him. Now it's up to us to be there when he needs us!" the letter said.

Similar appeals have gone out for Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.), a member of the House International Relations Committee who is locking horns once again with Joseph Hoeffel, the Montgomery County commissioner. Fox won the last election by a razor-thin majority.

The Fox-Hoeffel race is one of the few where Clinton's troubles are playing a direct role in the campaign. Last week Hoeffel said he will stay away from Clinton's Philadelphia fund-raiser.

"I don't want to be distracted by all of this sensational and salacious focus on the president's behavior," Hoeffel said in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I would love to have Hillary [Rodham Clinton]…I would love to have Al Gore. But not Bill Clinton."

Jewish Democrats put on a brave face, arguing that "each candidate running for office is making a decision based on what they think is best to win that office," said Stephen Silberfarb, National Jewish Democratic Council.

"Hoeffel is in a very close race. Who can blame him for trying to create the best environment he feels is necessary to get elected?" Silberfarb said.

But Republicans contend the Lewinsky scandal is the beginning of the end for Democratic candidates in close races.

The scandal is "not going to play out as a vote for or against people but will have a dramatic impact on turnout. Democrats feel abandoned. Republicans are clearly engaged," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition.

Silberfarb disagreed.

"The Republicans are like the Palestinians: They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Silberfarb said, alluding to Israeli statesman Abba Eban's famous saying. "Republicans have pushed the Democrats back together."

Brooks and Silberfarb did agree, however, that in the world of congressional campaigns, a lot can happen between now and Election Day.