Precarious Congress courts Jewish votes &mdash and ire

Listen to partisans on both sides of the aisle and it’s easy to think Israel is the killer issue for Jewish voters in the November midterm elections, the results of which will determine the leadership of the next Congress and shape the remaining two years of President Bush’s term. 

But listen to Jews in neighborhoods around the country, and you get a very different picture. For many, a host of critical domestic concerns are the issues driving the election, and one overarching foreign policy matter: the war in Iraq. 

In public, Republican activists say their goal is to top their party’s tally with Jewish voters in the 2002 midterms, estimated at between 25 and 35 percent. In private, some concede that if the predicted Democratic surge materializes, they may be hard pressed to come close to those levels. 

As the election nears and the Iraq death toll rises, the war looms ever larger as the decisive issue of 2006. 

According to last week’s American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Public Opinion, 65 percent of Jews queried believe the United States should not have invaded Iraq; only 29 percent say it was “the right thing.” Jews were skeptical of the administration’s war aims during the run-up to the war in 2003, and that skepticism has only deepened. Now, the rest of the country is catching up. 

For months Republicans have sought to tie opposition to the war to anti-Israel forces; Jimmy Carter and Cindy Sheehan are portrayed as the face of the new Democratic Party in controversial ads sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition arguing that the Democrats have gone soft on Israel and terrorism. 

But at a strategy meeting in September, Democratic officials decided to confront the issue head-on in their Jewish campaign. Now, candidates across the country are arguing that the war is a disaster for Israel as well as the United States because it has strengthened Iran and Syria and produced a new generation of Middle East terrorists. 

Recently Rep. Ben Cardin, the Democratic nominee to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, articulated that view when he told a Jewish audience, “We have lost our focus in the war on terrorism. The real threats in the Middle East are Iran and Syria. This president is isolating us internationally, and that is not good for Israel.” 

The war is the biggest factor in the potential Democratic tsunami, and Jewish voters, unimpressed with the argument that opposition to the Iraq war is tantamount to hostility to Israel, may be riding the crest. 

Another factor that could drive the Jewish vote is the influence of the Christian right on the GOP. 

The Republicans are in a bind; they can’t win without the support of conservative Christian voters and leaders, but many believe that groups such as the Christian Coalition have gone too far in their efforts to reshape American society. 

Polls show a decline in the proportion of Americans opposed to civil unions or marriage for gays and lesbians; the 2005 Terri Schiavo right-to-die controversy convinced many that the Christian right and its political friends want to intrude into private matters where they have no business. A strong and growing majority rejects the limits on stem cell research demanded by conservative Christian groups and enacted by the Bush administration. 

That potential backlash against the religious right among American voters may be heightened in the Jewish community, with its special anxiety about attempts to stamp America with the “Christian nation” imprint. 

Reports from the campaign trail suggest the Democrats are also faring well with Jewish voters on issues such as health care, Social Security reform and fiscal responsibility. 

Jews remain independent-minded voters even as they continue to hover near the Democratic orbit. Selected Republicans who have worked hard to create strong relationships with Jewish voters may do very well next week. Interestingly, those Republicans tend to focus on close-to-home issues, not Israel, in their pitch to Jews. 

Maryland’s Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich is expected to build on his strong Jewish showing four years ago, based on sustained outreach to Jewish voters on issues such as taxes, support for small business, and homeland security assistance for religious institutions. 

Across the nation, identification with either party is down, and that is true in the Jewish community, as well. A big sector of Jewish independents — about 29 percent, according to the AJC survey — represents a potential growth area for the Republicans. But to exploit it, the GOP has to overcome Jewish fears about the religious right and address continuing Jewish concerns about social and economic justice. 

And many of those independent voters will stick with the Democrats in 2006 because of frustration with the war in Iraq. 

Jews remain vitally concerned about Israel and how the decisions made in Washington affect U.S.-Israel relations. 

But they also understand that it’s not rhetoric that counts, but real-life policies. A big factor in next week’s election could be the view by a growing number of Jews that current policy in Iraq is hurting and not helping Israel and her only reliable ally.

James David Besser is a Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers across the country.