Key Congress Races Hold Great Import

Perhaps it makes sense that Allyson Schwartz’s campaign headquarters sits above a Russian Jewish market on 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 Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel 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 countercharges 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 Iraq War.

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

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

By and large, however, attention is focused more on the tight presidential race than on the battles for the House and Senate. Yet analysts say this year’s congressional races are vitally important.

Democrats have a chance to take control of the Senate, which could help funnel through a lot of 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. However, 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 GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in a redrawn district that heavily favors Sessions.

Jewish Democrats from across the country have been aiding Frost. Sheldon Cohen, a former IRS commissioner, hosted a fundraiser for Frost in the Washington area that attracted more than 30 people at 7:30 on a weekday morning.

“He’s been a leader of a lot of good things, certainly everything the Jewish community could want,” Cohen said of Frost who declined to state how much money was raised.

The race has been tense, with both candidates accusing the other of stealing yard signs. A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Frost trailing Sessions by 6 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 an open Senate seat. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also is Jewish, is seen as Deutsch’s likely successor in a heavily Democratic district.

David Ashe’s chances in Virginia have risen since GOP Rep. Ed Schrock 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 faces an uphill battle to unseat Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). Harris beat Schneider in 2002. The other challenger, attorney Paul Hodes, is seeking to oust 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 by GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, 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.

The Jewish community also is watching the South Carolina race in which Inez Tenenbaum, the state’s superintendent of education, is taking on GOP Rep. Jim DeMint for a seat now being held by a Democrat.

Tenenbaum’s husband is a pro-Israel activist on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In her campaign advertisements, however, she has stressed that her parents were church elders, and she has touted conservative issues, such as the constitutional amendment against gay marriages. Tenenbaum’s election would be considered a boon for the pro-Israel community, though some polls show her 10 points behind DeMint.

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 education commissioner, won her Democratic primary despite being attacked by Deutsch, who suggested that 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 AIPAC and other Jewish groups. Supporters say she expects to win a large portion of Florida’s Jewish vote.

A Democratic Senate staffer who follows Florida politics said many of the Jews backing Castor’s opponent, Mel Martinez, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, also are supporting Bush.

The staffer went on to say that Castor would have been vulnerable on the Islamic jihad issue even if she hadn’t faced Deutsch’s accusations in the primary.

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 Democratic Rep. Brad Carson against physician Tom Coburn, a former congressman. The race is considered close, with recent polls divided as to who is ahead.

“We’ve helped him,” Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, said of Carson. “He has a good record.”

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 Patriot Act. Polls show Salazar with a small lead.

Republican Jews have been focusing their attention on unseating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and have been giving money to his challenger, former Rep. 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.

Republicans also are backing North Carolina Rep. Richard Burr who is running against former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for an open Senate seat. Polls show the race has tightened in recent weeks, with Bowles’ lead down to only one to two percentage points.

The race has focused on national security issues, with Burr accusing Bowles of being weak on terrorism, when he served in the Clinton administration. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has defended Bowles.

Republicans and pro-Israel activists have aided Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was appointed to the Senate two years ago by her father, when he became governor. Murkowski has developed a solid pro-Israel record, Amitay said, but she faces a strong challenge from Tony Knowles, a former governor, who is up 3 percentage points in the polls. The hot issue in the state is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some are also watching Wisconsin, where Feingold holds a solid lead over Republican challenger Tim Michels. But as a liberal lawmaker in a state that is growing more conservative — and which is considered a tossup in the presidential race — Feingold will have to work hard right up until election day, Jewish advocates say. The latest poll shows Feingold, the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, more than 20 points ahead of Michels.

There also is disappointment in the Jewish community that Rep. Cynthia McKinney 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 strong anti-Israel positions.

Majette shocked many earlier this year, giving up her House position to run for an open Senate seat that many assume will go Republican next month.

McKinney won a primary for her old seat and does not face a strong challenge in the predominantly Democratic district. Yet, Jewish leaders suggest McKinney may curtail her anti-Israel rhetoric if she returns to the Capitol in January, a hope shared by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“Frankly I have not had any discussions with Cynthia for some period of time, so I don’t know whether she has modified her views,” Hoyer said last month. “But they are not shared by anybody I know of that is in the Democratic Caucus today.”