Strategists from both parties push for Jewish voters

washington | In a turbulent midterm election campaign that could culminate with a major political realignment in the U.S. Congress, candidates are constant at least with one constituency: Jewish voters.

In their campaigns for the Jewish vote on Nov. 7, Republicans are pitching support for Israel and anti-terrorism, as they have for years. Democrats are reminding voters of the party’s traditional support for Israel but are emphasizing health care, keeping church separate from state and supporting reproductive rights, as usual.

What’s different is the intensity of the outreach, with major ad buys in Jewish media and innovative grass-roots efforts, a consequence of a fevered campaign that could see the Republican majority ousted from Congress.

In six tight races for the U.S. Senate and in 25 to 30 tight races for the U.S. House of Representatives, swaying just a few hundred votes could be the margin for victory.

Losing one house could significantly alter the Washington agenda.

“This is going to be a nail-biter election,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

One measure of the seriousness of the Republican outreach has been the RJC’s massive advertising campaign in Jewish media. The ads, which have not yet appeared in j. but have surfaced in cities with stronger Republican backing, allege that support for Israel has eroded among rank-and-file Democrats.

The National Jewish Democratic Council has responded with ads that say the RJC campaign undermines support for Israel.

Unlike the RJC’s national campaign, however, the NJDC is targeting specific competitive races.

Ira Forman, the NJDC executive director, identified ad buys this week in New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, faces a strong challenge from Tom Kean; and in Missouri, where state auditor Claire McCaskill threatens Republican Sen. Jim Talent.

That reflects the overall Jewish Democratic effort, which is focusing money where it is most needed and getting out the vote in races Democrats think they can win.

In contrast, Brooks says the RJC ads are less about individual races and are aimed more at what has long been the RJC’s overreaching goal: expanding Jewish membership in a party that Jews have traditionally rejected 3-to-1.

“There’s a competitive political environment going on, and we’re using that opportunity to help educate the Jewish community,” he said.

He cited his ad buys in California and New York, where urban voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

Observers say the frequency of the ads — a new one appears virtually every week — is unprecedented.

But where the ads look to the long term, the short-term strategy relies more on grass-roots outreach.

Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox conservative political activist, organized a weekly Republican conference call geared toward like-minded activists.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), in a tight re-election race with opponent Bob Casey, has joined some of the calls, as has former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The NJDC has been on the phone as well, orchestrating calls to get key candidates talking to Jewish, local and national media about Jewish issues.

Among Jewish voters, however, domestic policies are the natural emphasis for Democrats, said Matt Dorf, a Democratic strategist.

“The message is that Jewish Democrats do not have to compromise their values to vote,” he said.

That doesn’t mean Democrats are ceding ground on national security and foreign policy when they reach out to Jews, Dorf said.

Republicans counter that the Democratic Party is sliding away from Israel.

Democrats call it a scare tactic that could undermine bipartisan support for Israel.

“We’re illuminating a real problem within the Democratic Party,” he said, arguing that the “progressive, radical left” has become the party’s mainstream.