Boxer victorious in Calif., Schumer in N.Y. Jewish candidates win big, pushing Senate ranks to 11

WASHINGTON — Jewish candidates rode the unprecedented Democratic surge to victory this week, swelling their representation in the U.S. Senate to record levels.

With Democrat Barbara Boxer's win over California Treasurer Matt Fong, and Democrat Rep. Charles Schumer's upset victory over Republican incumbent Alfonse D'Amato in the New York race, the upper chamber of Congress will include 11 Jewish members for the first time ever.

The win for the incumbent Boxer, of Greenbrae, was anything but sure in the weeks leading up to the election.

"They said I was too progressive. They said I was too supportive of the president. They said I was too feisty. Where did they ever get that idea?" she said, adding that someone even said she was "too short."

"They all missed something. They missed the deep support I have…in every part of this beautiful state."

In the end, she defeated Fong with 53 percent of the vote, compared to his 43 percent.

"I have always had tough races," said Boxer in her victory speech. "When you take strong stands, you always have people who are very dedicated to beat you."

The only Jewish incumbent to lose a seat Tuesday in the nationwide races for Senate and House of Representatives was Rep. Jon Fox, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Despite the election of three new members, the Jewish caucus in the House will again shrink, from 25 to 23, resulting in the smallest delegation of the decade.

Schumer's convincing victory, Fox's defeat in Pennsylvania and Boxer's win together struck a devastating blow to Jewish Republicans, who had launched a campaign of their own to convince GOP candidates to actively woo Jewish voters.

Fox had been groomed by pro-Israel activists as a leader in his party after receiving a coveted post on the International Relations Committee. His defeat means Jewish Republicans will see their representation go from three to one in the House.

Only Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) remains from the last class, after cruising to re-election against a Jewish opponent, Paul Feiner. Rep. Steve Schiff (R-N.M.) died last year of cancer.

"Obviously we would like to see more Jewish Republicans, but let me tell you, Arlen Specter and Benjamin Gilman do the work of 20 Jewish Republicans," Matt Brooks, executive director of the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition, said, referring to the Pennsylvania senator and New York congressman, respectively.

Nationally, Jews voted by a 78 percent to 21 percent margin for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, helping to undermine several Republican candidates.

In California, 82 percent of Jewish voters supported Boxer, compared to 18 percent for Fong.

Fong, who touted his role in the battle for Holocaust assets, was hurt by a late report that he contributed $50,000 to the Traditional Values Coalition, a staunchly pro-life, anti-gay group.

In New York's hotly contested Senate race, Jewish voters supported Schumer over incumbent D'Amato by 77 percent to 23 percent.

"There was a tidal wave that swept these guys out and took the Jewish vote with them," Brooks said.

Exuberant Jewish Democrats, some singing "Siman Tov and Mazel Tov," hailed the role that Jewish voters played in the election.

"The biannual claim by Jewish Republicans that Jews are voting more Republican has been shattered once and for all," said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "Jews vote Democratic."

In fact, the only Republican to break the 30 percent barrier of the Jewish vote in a statewide race was Peter Fitzgerald, who defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, winning 34 percent of the Jewish vote against Moseley-Braun's 62 percent.

Jewish Republicans pointed to the race as proof that a "hard-core conservative who is strongly pro-life can still do well among Jewish voters," Brooks said.

But Democrats countered that Moseley-Braun was hurt by ethical violations, and never stood a realistic chance of surviving election night.

Much attention was focused this week on Schumer's win over three-term Republican D'Amato in a bitterly fought New York Senate race where Jewish issues and unprecedented appeals to Jewish voters played out front and center.

In the most expensive race of the season, D'Amato had called in all his chits from his battle on behalf of Holocaust survivors against Swiss banks and European insurance companies — all the while accusing his Jewish opponent of not supporting Jewish constituents in Congress.

But only weeks before the election, D'Amato called Schumer a "putzhead" at a meeting with Jewish supporters, giving his opponent another avenue for attack. In a sign that the comment hurt D'Amato with Jewish voters, many split their ticket, with 38 percent supporting the re-election of New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki but only 23 percent voting for D'Amato.

"Had D'Amato not had a self-inflicted wound in the Jewish community, he would have done better," Brooks said, citing polls before the "putzhead" episode that predicted the Republican incumbent would receive almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote.

Religion was not polled in Pennsylvania, where Specter scored an expected convincing victory, 62 to 30 percent against Democrat Bill Lloyd. But local and national activists believe he received the lion's share of the Jewish vote.

The most endangered Jewish senator, Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, held on and defeated Rep. Mark Neumann, a Republican, by 51 to 49 percent. Feingold, the co-author of the primary campaign finance reform bill in the last Congress, limited his spending in the race and refused to accept outside help.

The only other Jewish senator up for re-election, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), cruised to victory as expected, winning 59 to 36 percent against Republican John Lim.

In Georgia, Jewish Democratic candidate Michael Coles had a surprisingly strong showing, winning 45 percent of the vote, but it was not enough to defeat Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), who won 52 percent of the vote.

In the House, Democratic Jewish candidates swept into office, as all incumbents won re-election despite strong challenges.

Among the winners were two freshmen Jewish members, Reps. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Brad Sherman (D-Woodland Hills), who wear their pro-Israel activism on their sleeves and labored during the past two years to stake out positions favored by the Jewish community.