Dance With Them That Brung You

It was more in anger than sorrow that Sen. Alfonse D’Amato met with a group of Jewish community leaders last week to plead his case for re-election.

No Republican senator has done more for Israel and Jewish causes in recent years, the three-term GOP veteran argued. He led the fight to win Holocaust restitution from Swiss banks. He sponsored the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Yet polls show Jewish voters leaning 70-30 toward his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer of Brooklyn. Where’s the gratitude, D’Amato wondered aloud.

His listeners were moved. Most had longstanding ties to Schumer, a Jew who’s been a House leader on Jewish issues for decades. Still, many wanted to help D’Amato somehow. “It’s natural,” says New York’s ex-mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who helped convene the breakfast. “If you want to have righteous gentiles stand up for you, then you have to say ‘Thank You.'”

A few days later, though, D’Amato’s bid for Jewish thanks was trumped by events. On Friday, in a White House ceremony televised worldwide, President Clinton presided over the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian pact he had hammered out, reviving the gasping peace process and pulling the Middle East back from the brink of chaos. Nearly everyone involved agreed it was Clinton’s personal triumph. If that doesn’t deserve a vote of thanks, what does?

Formally, of course, Clinton isn’t on Tuesday’s ballot. In practice, though, he is. “If you want Congress to be talking about Monica Lewinsky for the next year and a half, followed by an impeachment vote, the thing to do is vote Republican,” says Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, a Jewish Democrat who attended the signing ceremony.

Most Jews will vote Democratic, as usual. Close to 80 percent did so in the last two congressional elections, even the 1994 Republican sweep. American Jews have viewed the Democratic Party for generations as the protector of minority rights and religious freedom. That view has only grown lately, as the Republican right has mounted assaults on key interests like immigration, foreign aid and abortion rights.

This year, though, Republicans say it’s time to think again.

The math is simple. One-tenth of the U.S. Senate is Jewish. That’s a lot of clout for a group that’s barely 2.5 percent of the general population. But of those 10 Jewish senators, nine are Democrats. There’s only one Jew, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, among the Senate’s 55 Republicans. Republicans, alert readers recall, are in charge now.

It’s even worse on the House side: Of 24 Jewish members, just two are Republicans, Ben Gilman of New York and Jon Fox of suburban Philadelphia. Two Jews among 221 Republicans. And Fox faces a tough re-election challenge. He won last time by 84 votes.

The Jewish presence in the GOP hasn’t been weaker in decades. Besides Specter, Gilman and Fox, the only nationally visible Jewish Republican politician is Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith. Two others might emerge next week: Linda Lingle, running for governor of Hawaii, and Norm Coleman, for governor of Minnesota. A possible third is Randy Hoffman, seeking to unseat freshman Rep. Brad Sherman of Los Angeles in this year’s only Jew-vs.-Jew race. Even if they all win, though, the imbalance between the two parties’ Jewish delegations is staggering.

When Democrats ran Congress, Jewish lawmakers led fights for Jewish interests from Soviet refugee visas to UJA tax deductibility. Since 1994, community leaders have worked hard to forge new alliances with non-Jewish Republicans, with mixed results. Sometimes the alliance is over an issue where there’s philosophical agreement — with New Jersey’s Chris Smith on immigration, for example, or with Newt Gingrich on foreign aid. Lobbyists have also labored to boost the role of Republican Jewish donors.

But Republicans say it’s not enough. If Jewish voters remain three-to-one Democratic, Republicans will tire of courting them. That’s why eyes all over the country are watching the D’Amato-Schumer race.

“Anybody in politics knows you’ve got to maintain your commitments and support your friends,” says one lobbyist. “If you don’t, you’re sending a message to everybody else who supports you. It’s the old principle, you’ve got to dance with them that brung you.”

Sensing an opening, Republicans have mounted a special effort this year to woo Jewish voters. The GOP-linked National Jewish Coalition has coached candidates in a half-dozen states with big Jewish populations. “Many Republican candidates don’t know how to communicate without using words that alienate Jewish voters,” says coalition Director Matt Brooks.

Brooks says his pupils include some of this year’s most watched Republican comers, including California Senate challenger Matt Fong and Florida gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. “You have a number of candidates who realize that the Jewish community is in play,” Brooks says. “Hopefully they’ll be rewarded with a significant share of the Jewish vote, and that will make the difference in a close election.”

New York is the test case. D’Amato has made Jewish issues a central campaign theme. He’s hammered at Schumer for everything from voting against the 1991 Gulf War (true) to abandoning the besieged Lubavitch chassidim during the 1991 Crown Heights riots (not true). Last week, flanked by two Holocaust survivors and a rabbi, D’Amato claimed Schumer “does not care” about the Holocaust, having missed some procedural votes on the Swiss bank issue. Schumer was furious.

D’Amato doesn’t want much, just 40 percent of the Jewish vote. That’s what he got in 1992. George Bush, heading that year’s GOP ticket, got 15 percent. One-fourth of New York’s Jewish voters, about 250,000, split their tickets to back D’Amato. He won by about 100,000 votes.

Brooks says he’s aiming for 40 percent in the Fong and Bush races, too. His studies show it’s a key threshold. “Since 1980,” he says, “no Republican running in a district with a major Jewish population has gotten 40 percent of the Jewish vote and lost.”

He may be overly optimistic. His California candidate, Fong, went head to head with Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer in last spring’s open primary. Fong got only 12 percent of the Jewish vote — even though as state treasurer he helped lead the drive for Swiss bank sanctions. Boxer, who is Jewish, got 69 percent.

“Jews are Americans as well as Jews,” says Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat. “Our values aren’t only Israel and the Holocaust. We also have an interest in how this country is. If we don’t, then we come cheap. I don’t think that serves Jewish interests, and I don’t think it serves the Torah.”

And then there’s the matter of Clinton. “We have an unqualified friend in the White House,” says Florida’s Wexler. “We should all rejoice in that. And remember it when we vote.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.