New faces offset losses as Jews gain seats in Congress

WASHINGTON — One influential Jewish representative was defeated, one venerated Jewish senator retired and the number of Jewish Republicans may have tripled as a result of this week's elections.

Overall, the Jewish presence in Congress will increase, with several new faces in the House of Representatives.

The 107th Congress will have at least 27 Jewish representatives and at least nine senators. The 106th Congress had 23 Jewish representatives and 11 senators.

Two House races in which Jewish challengers were attempting to unseat incumbents, were still too close to call Wednesday morning, as the nation waited to see whether Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) would become the first-ever Jewish vice president.

If Lieberman does not make it to the White House, he will return to the Senate, ensuring a Jewish "minyan" in the upper chamber.

But a Democratic Jewish colleague from Lieberman's home state, Rep. Sam Gejdenson, will not be returning to Congress. Gejdenson lost his House seat and the important standing as the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee when he was unseated Tuesday by Republican Rob Simmons.

Gejdenson has long been viewed as a friend to the Jewish community and particularly strong on Israel issues.

Jews are losing another longtime friend on Capitol Hill with the retirement of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who stepped down after 18 years. His successor, Democrat Jon Corzine, who poured millions of his own dollars into the campaign, can thank the majority of the state's 600,000 Jews who helped vote him into office.

Two other Jewish senators up for re-election — San Francisco's Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) — both won.

Republican Jewish numbers in the House, meanwhile, may increase from one to two or three, depending on whether Republican Dick Zimmer succeeds in unseating incumbent Democrat Rush Holt and regaining the seat Zimmer once held.

Zimmer was originally declared the winner in New Jersey's 12th District, but by noon Wednesday, the race was still too close to call.

The new Jewish Republican in the House is Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) was re-elected.

In California, new Democratic Jewish members of the House are Susan Davis (Los Angeles) and Adam Schiff (Pasadena).

Schiff won a decisive victory over Republican incumbent Jim Rogan of Pasadena, by 54 to 43 percent. At a cost of more than $9 million, the campaign was considered to be the most expensive in House history. Rogan was one of the House managers at the Clinton impeachment trial.

Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) returns to the House seat she once held after defeating Republican incumbent Steven Kuykendall.

Another new Democratic Jewish member of the House is Steve Israel of New York, who was the regional director for American Jewish Congress on Long Island in the 1980s.

Another race, in Florida's 22nd District, was still too close to call at presstime. There 20-year incumbent Republican Clay Shaw was trying to stave off a challenge from Elaine Bloom, a Jewish Democrat. The bitter campaign had both candidates hurling accusations at each other and vying for the votes of the more than 100,000 Jews in the South Florida district.

The district is 40 to 45 percent Jewish, and both Bloom and Shaw have strong relationships with the community, said Luis Fleischman, director of the Jewish community relations council in Palm Beach County.

Some races were watched closely because the Jewish vote could have made a difference, while others highlighted a particular candidate's positions that either turned on or turned off Jewish sensibilities. Among the results from key Senate races are:

*In New York, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated Republican Rick Lazio. After a grueling campaign, the first lady rode to victory by an estimated 56 percent to 44 percent. But Jews, who made up 14 percent of overall voters, were deeply split.

Estimates were that anywhere between 53 percent and 58 percent of Jews voted for Clinton amid lingering concern over her controversial kiss last year of Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian Authority president, and her support of a Palestinian state. But Lazio may have tried too hard with his charges that Clinton had ties to Muslim groups advocating terrorism.

*In Nevada, Republican John Ensign defeated Jewish Democrat Ed Bernstein. A well-known trial attorney, Bernstein had been down more than 30 points and then pulled within four points of his opponent, but it was not enough. Nevada is a conservative state, and Bernstein's liberal message did not play well, as he lost 56 to 40 percent. The open Democratic seat is a major loss to Senate Democrats, who were hoping for a gain in numbers.

*In New Jersey, Democrat Corzine decisively beat Republican Bob Franks. For many Jews, the idea of anyone replacing Lautenberg, who was venerated by the Jewish community, will be tough. But Corzine spent $60 million on the campaign and reached out to a significant portion of the state's 600,000-plus Jews. In the end, 72 percent of Jewish voters backed him.

*In Michigan, Democrat Debbie Stabenow defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Spencer Abraham. In a very close race only declared Wednesday morning, Stabenow finally dealt Abraham, the only Arab-American senator, a defeat.

Abraham was accused of running a lackluster campaign, while the two-term representative Stabenow's health care ideas may have resonated with voters. The much-touted Arab-American voting bloc may not have come out strong enough for Abraham. Michigan has more than 100,000 Jews, and more than 300,000 Arab-Americans.

Among the House races involving Jewish candidates:

*In Illinois' 10th District, Lauren Beth Gash, a Jewish Democrat, lost to Mark Kirk, a Republican. It was a close race for the open seat vacated by retiring Republican Rep. John Porter, who was well regarded by the 50,000-strong Jewish community on Chicago's North Shore.

Gash, who was an active member of the Jewish delegation to the State Assembly and serves on the regional board of the American Jewish Congress, tried to reach out to Jews, but she fell short.

Kirk may have enjoyed some advantage because he worked for Porter, knows the Jewish community well and is adept with issues of importance to the community, such as aid to Israel and immigration, said Jay Tcath, director of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council.

*In Virginia's 7th District, Republican Eric Cantor defeated Democrat Warren A. Stewart by a wide margin. Cantor, a Jewish real estate executive, was heavily favored to win the seat of retiring, 10-term Republican Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr.

*In Colorado's 6th District, Ken Toltz, a Jewish Democrat, went up against Republican incumbent Tom Tancredo, but did not manage to unseat him. Tancredo beat the Jewish businessman 54 to 43 percent, as Tancredo's conservatism appeared not to give him problems. Gun control was a major issue in the campaign, particularly because the district includes the town of Littleton, where 12 students and one teacher died in a 1999 shooting at Columbine High School.

*In New Jersey's 3rd District, Democrat Susan Bass Levin gave Republican Jim Saxton a good run, but Saxton ended up winning by 58 to 42 percent. Saxton, a 16-year incumbent, beat Levin, the popular Jewish mayor of Cherry Hill, despite her work to get support of the area's 30,000 Jews. Levin apparently did not boost her name recognition enough outside her home city.