THE JEWISH VOTE 2004:With focus on presidency, congressional races fly under radar

philadelphia | Perhaps it makes sense that Allyson Schwartz’s campaign headquarters sits above a Russian Jewish market in a small strip mall: After all, Schwartz is considered to have the best chance of any candidate to join the Jewish caucus in Congress.

The Democratic Pennsylvania state senator is running to replace Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.), who is trying to win a Senate seat.

Schwartz has received support from Jewish Democratic donors but is in one of the most competitive open seats in the country, running against Republican ophthalmologist Melissa Brown in the state’s 13th District. The two have been attacking each other with negative advertising.

Brown accuses Schwartz of having “radical views,” such as opposing the death penalty in all cases and supporting tax increases. Schwartz counter-charges that Brown committed insurance fraud with her husband when they founded a doctor-owned HMO.

The race also has focused on health care and the war in Iraq.

A Keystone poll taken late last month had Schwartz leading Brown by 45 percent to 32 percent.

Schwartz’s is one of the few congressional races the American Jewish community is watching intently this year. While 2002 elections saw Jews support challengers to incumbents seen as anti-Israel, in 2004 the community is focused more on aiding vulnerable incumbents and picking sides in a number of open Senate races.

By and large, however, politicos are focused on the tight presidential race, and they aren’t paying close attention to battles for the House and Senate.

Yet analysts say this year’s congressional races are vitally important. Democrats have a chance to take control in the Senate, which could help funnel through social policy programs backed by Jewish groups that have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress.

The House is likely to stay Republican, but Democratic gains there also could help the Jewish social agenda, analysts say.

The majority party has the ability to introduce legislation and chair the committees that process and mark up bills.

There always is interest in increasing the number of Jews in the Capitol. Currently, there are 26 Jewish representatives, most of whom do not face serious challenges for re-election, and 11 Jewish senators, five of whom are up for re-election this year.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) do not face strong challenges this year. Two — Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — are in tough races.

The most closely watched race in the Jewish community involves Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), the second-longest serving Jewish Democrat in the House, who is up against Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in a redrawn district that heavily favors Sessions.

Jewish Democrats from across the country have been aiding Frost. A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Frost trailing Sessions by six percentage points.

Jewish Democrats say the former minority whip holds influence in the chamber from his role on the House Democratic Steering Committee, and as the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee. He also has been a vocal advocate for Israel.

The only Jewish House member not seeking re-election this year is Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for Florida’s open Senate seat.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is Jewish, is seen as Deutsch’s likely successor in a heavily Democratic district.

David Ashe’s chances in Virginia have risen since Rep. Ed Schrock (R-Va.) got out of the race amid an Internet-based rumor campaign. Ashe, a veteran of the 2003 Iraq war who is Jewish, is up against Thelma Drake, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Democrats also are looking at two other challengers: Jan Schneider, who faces an uphill battle to unseat Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), who beat Schneider in 2002; and Paul Hodes, an attorney challenging Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).

In the Senate, eyes are focused on Specter, who seems likely to defeat Hoeffel to win his fifth term.

Specter is leading in the polls by almost 20 points. He has focused his campaign on support for the Iraq war, as well as steel tariffs, an important issue in Pennsylvania. Hoeffel has countered by discussing the Republican-backed tax cuts and his record on the environment and abortion.

Specter was able to fend off a primary challenge from the right from Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), thanks largely to support from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But while he needed to project his conservative credentials during the primary, he now is moving back to the center to pick up undecided voters.

Many Jews in the state have crossed party lines to back Specter in the past, though Hoeffel is expected to get some Jewish support. But some female Jewish voters say they’re still angry at Specter because of his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

Not all races of interest to the Jewish community involve Jewish candidates: One of the most closely watched Senate contests this year involves a candidate who beat out a Jewish challenger in the primary.

Betty Castor, a former Florida state commissioner of education, won her Democratic primary despite being attacked by Deutsch, who suggested Castor allowed an Islamic Jihad ally to operate a front for the terrorist group at the University of South Florida when Castor was the school’s president.

Jewish Democrats now are trying to restore Castor’s image in the community as polls show a dead-even race. Castor has reached out to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups, and supporters say she expects to win a large portion of Florida’s Jewish vote.

Jews also are watching Senate races in Oklahoma and Colorado. Democrats believe those states may be the best places to pick up Senate seats currently in Republican hands, and Israel activists from both sides of the aisle are looking for candidates that will support Israel.

In Oklahoma, pro-Israel activists have been supporting Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.) against physician Tom Coburn, a former congressman. The race is considered close, with recent polls divided as to who is ahead.

Some Jewish leaders are concerned about Coburn’s pro-life platform. Coburn also has been plagued by charges that he sterilized a woman without her consent, and for recent comments suggesting “lesbianism” is rampant in state schools.

In Colorado, concerns about conservative positions from beer magnate and Republican candidate Pete Coors have led Jews to support Democratic candidate Ken Salazar, the state attorney general. The race has focused on national issues, such as the Iraq war and the USA Patriot Act. Polls show Salazar with a small lead.

Republican Jews have been focusing their attention on unseating Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and have been giving money to his challenger, former congressman John Thune, in a tight race. Recent polls are divided as to who is ahead.

Daschle has been a strong proponent of Israel and Jewish domestic policy concerns. Thune also is considered strong on Israel. The race has focused primarily on Social Security and health care, as well as Daschle’s record opposing Republican initiatives in the Senate.

Some are watching Wisconsin, where Feingold holds a 20 point lead over Republican challenger Tim Michels. Feingold was the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act.

There also is disappointment in the Jewish community that Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) almost certainly will return to Congress. McKinney was unseated by Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) in 2002, with the American Jewish community heavily backing Majette because of McKinney’s strongly anti-Israel positions.


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