It was a stellar night for the Republicans across the nation, and Tuesday’s dramatic election results, with the GOP snatching back control of the Senate and tightening its grip on the House, will be a big boost for the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration.
But with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, where the filibuster rules, the Republican leadership will not exactly have a blank check on the domestic front — good news for liberal Jewish groups.
"Will more of President Bush’s agenda get through? Absolutely," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Will more of his conservative judges be approved? You bet. But will dramatically right-wing policy changes be enacted? No way; the margins are just too small."
Still, the shift to GOP control is certain to revive efforts to pass controversial social legislation such as school voucher and charitable choice.
Republican leaders have already indicated that a top priority will be accelerating the sweeping 2001 tax cuts, which Democrats say will just lead to new pressure to cut health and social service programs. Foreign policy, including the impending war against Iraq and the ongoing Middle East crisis, was barely a ripple in the midterm contest.
"Except in a few cases where there were clearly divergent views on the Iraq resolution, there was virtually no foreign policy issue that bubbled up during the campaigns," said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. But he said the GOP sweep was a "strong affirmation of the president’s leadership." And that could boost President George W. Bush’s plans to wage war against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. "He got a green light — a green strobe light," Sabato said. "He can do whatever he wants in foreign policy; that’s what the people have said."
As usual, an overwhelming majority of incumbents in both parties retained their seats. No Jewish House or Senate lawmaker was defeated. There will be one more Jew in the Senate, thanks to two of the strangest races in recent memory; there will be no change in the number of Jews in the House.
With support for Israel at a bipartisan high on Capitol Hill, U.S. Mideast policy was a non-issue in the 2002 midterm congressional elections. Even in New Hampshire, where Rep. John Sununu (R) won his bid to become the only Palestinian-American in the Senate, there was almost no debate over the tumultuous Middle East.
Sununu, son of the former White House chief of staff, easily defeated Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who had waged a very active campaign to win support from pro-Israel groups.
For Jewish activists, one of the most watched Senate races was in New Jersey, where former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), a onetime national United Jewish Appeal chairman, stepped in only weeks before the election after the incumbent, Sen. Frank Torricelli, pulled out in a cloud of ethics concerns. Torricelli had trailed GOP challenger Doug Forrester, but on Tuesday, Lautenberg won with a comfortable 55-43 percent margin.
In one of the night’s most stunning upsets, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman (R) narrowly beat former vice president Walter Mondale (D) to claim the seat held by Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash two weeks ago. Coleman, like the man he replaces, is Jewish; his swearing-in will relieve Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) of his lonely status as the only Republican Jew in the Senate. Polls show a significant factor in Coleman’s upset victory was voter backlash against Wellstone supporters who had turned a memorial service into a partisan pep rally.
Besides Wellstone, the only other Jewish senator up for reelection was Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who easily brushed off a challenge from state Rep. Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski. But Levin, going into his fifth term, will lose his post as chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee, thanks to the GOP victory.
Pro-Israel activists generated campaign contributions for several incumbents who lost: Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.).
In North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole, a cabinet member in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations, easily beat Democrat Erskine Bowles, an official during the Clinton administration, to hold on to the seat being vacated by Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican. Jewish Republicans had pushed hard for Dole.
Contrary to many predictions, the Republicans expanded their control of the House.
But the Jewish Republican contingent in the House was cut in half with the retirement of Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY). Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), his only GOP colleague, handily defeated challenger Ben Jones, better known as "Cooter" on the TV series "Dukes of Hazard." That reinforces Cantor’s status as one of the GOP’s up-and-comers.
In Illinois, former Clinton staffer Rahm Emanuel, who is Jewish, won an easy-as-pie victory in the safely Democrat seat abandoned by Rep. Rod Blagojevich, who moves to the governors mansion. But in Georgia, Democrat Roger F. Kahn defied the prognosticators by losing to Republican Phil Gingrey for the right to represent the newly drawn 11th district in the Atlanta area. In Maryland, Rep. Ben Cardin (D), one of the senior members of the Jewish delegation in Congress, swamped GOP challenger Scott Alan Conwell, a political newcomer.
All Jewish members of New York’s big House delegation handily won reelection on Tuesday, some by huge margins.
Jewish Republicans poured money and resources into the Florida gubernatorial race, where incumbent and presidential sibling Jeb Bush faced a strong challenge from Democrat Bill McBride. Both campaigns targeted Florida’s huge Jewish population; in the end, Bush won handily with 56 percent of the vote.
The strong victory of Linda Lingle, a Republican, means Hawaii will have its first woman governor — and first Jewish one.
Pennsylvania will also have a Jewish governor, thanks to the election of former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat. Rendell defeated state Attorney General Mike Fisher, a Republican.
In Maryland, Rep. Bob Ehrlich (R) defeated Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — a dramatic upset in this overwhelmingly Democratic state. Both candidates campaigned feverishly for the state’s big Jewish vote, and Ehrlich forces claimed they had made significant inroads in the traditionally Democratic community.