U.S. Jewish candidates win big in primaries

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washington | A slew of Jewish candidates got a pre-Rosh Hashanah blessing Tuesday, Sept. 12 in primaries across the United States.

Two Jews won their bids to become the Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate — Ben Cardin in Maryland and Bernie Sanders in Vermont.

In other statewide races, Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Douglas Gansler won their primaries for governor in New York and attorney general in Maryland, respectively.

Jewish contenders also won a number of nominations for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives: Two Democratic nominations in Arizona, one Democratic nomination each in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and a Republican nomination in Minnesota.

The abundance of Jewish Democrats now facing virtually guaranteed wins or viable races in November will be welcomed by party leaders facing flak for abandoning Sen. Joe Lieberman last month in Connecticut. The national Republican Party’s decision to back moderates in Rhode Island and Arizona suggests that this November’s fight will aim for the center — the political stomping ground most Jewish voters prefer.

Many political pundits are predicting the Democrats will retake the House and possibly the Senate in November.

Here’s a rundown of some of the key races of Jewish interest:

In Maryland, U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) defeated Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and former director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to succeed U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a veteran Democrat.

Cardin, a scion of the famed Jewish philanthropic family, is a veteran of the influential House Ways and Means Committee and has a reputation for working quietly across the aisle in passing health care and pension reforms.

The winner faces Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who represents the Republicans’ best hope of getting a black candidate back into the U.S. Congress.

The seat Cardin is vacating covers parts of Baltimore and its southern suburbs. Winning the Democratic nomination to replace him was John Sarbanes, the retiring senator’s son. Sarbanes is a Greek Orthodox lawyer specializing in health care who helped found the Institute for Christian-Jewish Understanding. He is married to a Jewish woman, is raising his children as Jews and is active in the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore.

Douglas Gansler, the telegenic prosecutor from Montgomery County, Md., won the Democratic nomination for attorney general. He’s on the board of directors for the Greater Washington Jewish Community Council and is best known for confronting Israel’s legal system in the late 1990s when it protected Samuel Sheinbein, a Maryland youth who fled to Israel after murdering and dismembering another youth.

In Rhode Island, U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee defeated challenger Stephen Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, in the Republican primary. Though neither candidate is Jewish, the pro-Israel community closely watched the race because of Chafee, who has been outspoken in criticizing Israel’s settlement policies. His opponent ran a strongly pro-Israel primary campaign.

Chafee won with 54 percent of the vote, backed by piles of money from the national party, which did not believe a conservative like Laffey could win the moderate state.

Jewish Democrats, still smarting from Republican criticism of the party for abandoning Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman after he lost his party’s nomination last month, were ready to seize on Chafee’s win.

Ira Forman, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s executive director, said Chafee’s win would counter whatever fallout Democrats faced from the Jewish community after Lieberman, the first Jew to make a viable national ticket in 2000 as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate, was bumped.

Lieberman now is running as an independent against Ned Lamont, and the Republican Jewish Coalition already has used his loss in ads aimed at drawing Jews away from their traditional overwhelming support for Democrats.

“The ‘pro-Israel’ Republican Party is throwing all its weight behind Chafee,” Forman said. “Where’s the consistency?”

A senior Jewish Republican said the party supported Chafee, who more often than not is at odds with the White House on foreign and domestic policy, because Laffey was a sure loser.

Chafee now faces Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat running on an anti-Iraq war platform. Polls show them in a dead heat.

In other races:

In New York, Eliot Spitzer, the maverick attorney general who made his name by prosecuting a bevy of financiers, rode into the Democratic nomination for governor, winning 81 percent of the vote against a candidate backed by Wall Street figures who resented Spitzer’s interference. He is favored to win over Republican John Faso in the general election.

In Arizona, two Jewish women won the right to stage viable bids to take Republican seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Gabrielle Giffords strolled to victory by a 2-1 margin, and now faces a tight race to replace U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, a popular Republican who is retiring from a Tucson-area district. She now faces Randy Graf, a conservative with a tough line on immigration who beat a moderate, Steve Huffman.

Ellen Simon, a lawyer specializing in employee protection law, easily bested four other candidates running for the chance to face Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi, who represents the central part of Arizona, in the general election. Renzi is vulnerable, having been cited by the Federal Election Commission for funding irregularities in his 2004 campaign.

In Vermont, U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, the only independent in the House of Representatives, won the chance to replace Sen. Jim Jeffords, the only independent in the Senate. Sanders votes with the Democratic caucus, and the state party placed him on the primary ballot, which he won handily. He now faces Richard Tarrant, a Republican businessman.

In New Hampshire, Paul Hodes was unchallenged in the Democratic primary for the Concord area’s U.S. House of Representatives seat. It would be the second time in two years he faces incumbent Republican Rep. Charles Bass, but this time polls show a dead heat, a sign of frustration with the Iraq war and of Republicans’ declining fortunes in New England.

In Wisconsin, Steve Kagen, a Jewish doctor, handily beat two rivals in the Democratic primary after reportedly spending $1 million of his own money on his campaign. The national Republican Party has run advertisements calling the allergy specialist “Dr. Millionaire” and attacking him for suing some patients for lapsed payments.

In Minnesota, Keith Ellison won the chance to be the first Muslim in Congress, taking the Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic Minneapolis district vacated by U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring.

Ellison won a tight race after getting endorsements from the state party and local Jewish leaders. He has repudiated his mid-1990s association with the Nation of Islam.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.