GOP sweep makes one Jew a star, unseats and disempowers many others

A historic Republican sweep of the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday has propelled Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, to the verge of becoming the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in U.S. political history.

“We are excited for Eric Cantor to become the next House Majority leader,” said Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The highest ranking Jew to ever serve in the House!”

Cantor, however, remains the exception: The fortunes of Jewish politicians in the United States for decades have risen and fallen with the Democrats, and Tuesday night was no exception.

The Republican sweep, picking up at least 60 House seats—the greatest swing since 1948—and sharply reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate, drove at least six Jewish lawmakers out of office, with one of them a congressman losing his bid for the Senate.

The night’s Jewish losers included Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the Senate’s most dogged civil libertarian, beloved by liberals for his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War and expansions of government powers of interrogation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Feingold, in his concession, quoted another Great Plains Jew, Bob Dylan, who contemplated in “Mississippi” a difficult life well spent: “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free, I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.” Feingold then punctuated the lyric with, “On to the next fight!” to cheers from his supporters.

All told, Jewish representation in Congress dropped from 44 to 39, with 27 Jews in the House and 12 in the Senate. One loss in the Senate was Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who had been defeated in the primaries. Additionally, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who by Wednesday morning appeared to be on the cusp of a narrow re-election victory, does not list a religion but notes that his mother is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor.

The defeat of five Jewish incumbents, however, just hints at what this election could mean for Jewish access in Washington.

Since a sweep by Democrats in 2006, lawmakers with strong ties to the Jewish community had chaired some of the most powerful committees in the House. Committee chairmen, by determining agendas, hold almost unchallengeable power to advance or kill legislation.

With Republicans having taken the house, those lawmakers, all Democrats, lose their chairmanships. They include Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who heads the Banking Committee; Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Commerce and Energy committee; Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

Furthermore, Jewish groups—most but not all of which are bound up with Washington’s liberal-Democratic establishment—will see several veteran lawmakers with whom they have built years-long relationships exiting Congress. The most pronounced example is Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), who chaired the Budget Committee, which works with the White House to set spending priorities. Spratt’s office had an open door for Jewish social service lobbyists.

The benefit of such access often is subtle but valuable. Berman, for example, was a loyal Democrat who kept Iran sanctions at bay for as long as the White House hoped to coax Tehran into dialogue. As soon as the White House gave the green light, however, Berman was ready with a far-reaching bill that targeted Iran’s energy and banking sectors, and that was shaped in part with counsel from the pro-Israel community.

Such access will hardly disappear in a GOP Congress. Berman is likely to be replaced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who has cultivated close ties with the pro-Israel community and was a leader in advancing pro-Israel legislation when Republicans previously controlled the House. Jewish social service officials say Cantor has been a sympathetic ear on their issues. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader poised to become speaker, has deep ties with his state’s active Jewish community.

The certainty of such access, however, is less clear in a Congress shaped to a great degree by the Tea Party movement and its agenda of across-the-board budget cutting. Cantor already has said he intends to end earmarks, the discretionary funding derided as “pork” but favored by Jewish groups as a conduit for funding programs for the elderly.

Cantor and Boehner also have vowed to repeal the health care reform enacted this year.

“I believe that when we take majority in January, I hope that we’re able to put a repeal bill on the floor right away because that’s what the American people want,” Cantor told CBS News after the victory.

Republicans are not likely to overcome a presidential veto, but the threat is bound to make uneasy a Jewish social service establishment that sees in the legislation, however cumbersome, reforms critical to bringing down health care costs.

Cantor and Boehner are now set to ride a conservative tiger energized by the greatest midterm victory in decades, and spurred by leaders like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who already on election night was urging the new lawmakers to challenge the Republican “establishment.”

“These Republicans know one thing,” DeMint told supporters at his victory party in Greenville, S.C. “If they don’t do what they say this time, not only are they out, but the Republican Party is dead, and it should be.”

In the face of such sentiment, it is unclear to what degree the GOP leadership will be willing to countenance Jewish organizational urgings to tread softly on budget matters.

A bright spot for the Jewish community was the election in Illinois of Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to the open U.S. Senate seat. Kirk not only has been a leader on pro-Israel issues, he is an increasing rarity, and one beloved by Jewish donors who hanker for bipartisanship: a Republican moderate on social issues.

Pro-Israel officials already have fretted about Cantor’s proposal to pull Israel’s $3 billion in defense assistance from the foreign operations package. Such a separation, the officials fear, will make Israel vulnerable to charges of special treatment and could make the generous package a matter of debate. Rand Paul, a Tea Party Republican elected Kentucky’s senator, already has said he will seek cuts in defense spending.

It has yet to be seen how a GOP-led Congress will affect the peace process or efforts to get Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Foreign policy traditionally has been the prerogative of the president, but Congress is able to play an obstructionist role by exacting tough oversight on foreign spending.

Cantor in a pre-election interview told JTA that $500 million in spending for the Palestinian Authority would be subject to new scrutiny, and could depend on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

In the House, four Jewish Democrats were defeated: Reps. Alan Grayson and Ron Klein of Florida, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin and John Adler of New Jersey. Grayson, who won in 2008 against an incumbent weakened by a strong primary challenge, represents a district that encompasses Orlando and leans Republican. Since his election he had emerged as one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the Republicans, accusing the party of wanting the uninsured to die. Outside groups poured money into negative campaign ads taking aim at Grayson.

Klein, swept in with the Democratic majority in 2006, lost a swing seat to Allen West, an Iraq War veteran. Klein was a leader on pro-Israel issues, particularly related to Iran sanctions.

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) lost his bid to win his state’s open U.S. Senate seat; so did another Jewish Democrat, Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.

Jews did pick up a few seats. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general and a Democrat, won the Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Democrat David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, R.I., won the House race to succeed Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who also is retiring. Cicilline brings to three the number of openly gay Jewish lawmakers on Capitol Hill, joining Frank and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) appeared set to keep her Tucson area seat. Giffords, married to Mark Kelly, the first astronaut to join his twin, Scott, on a space station, beat back a challenge in part by distancing herself from Obama’s more liberal immigration policies.

Pro-Israel money helped incumbent friends of Israel pull off narrow victories. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, rallied against tough challenges, and by Wednesday morning it appeared that Bennet and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were on their way to winning as well. All four had been targeted for assistance by pro-Israel fund-raisers.

So had Democrat Jack Conway, who faced Paul in Kentucky in a race so bitter that Paul refused to mention Conway in his victory speech. Paul, whose father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), is a noted isolationist, kept pro-Israel groups at arm’s length during his campaign.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ousted by Tea Partier Joe Miller, appeared to be on her way to keeping her seat in a historic write-in campaign—one backed by NORPAC, one of the largest pro-Israel political action committees, in a last-minute fund-raising appeal.

J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobbying group, scored 0 for 3 in its Senate endorsements but appeared to do relatively well in its 58 House endorsements. The question is whether those successes will help push back a full-frontal campaign by groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition to depict J Street associations as poison at the polls.

J Street’s endorsee in the signature race for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Joe Sestak, lost to Republican Pat Toomey—but by a razor-thin margin.

Jewish groups also are watching closely how this election will impact social issues. For example, the Reform movement, among other groups, supports a repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay members of the military. With conservatives in Iowa ousting three judges who ruled gay marriage constitutional in a rare recall election, such initiatives may be headed for deep freeze.

Jews won a number of statewide races. : Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and Democratic Party chairman, and Josh Mandel, a Republican state legislator, Orthodox Jew and Iraq War veteran, won their races for Massachusetts and Ohio state treasurer, respectively. Also, Sam Olens, a Republican, was elected Georgia’s attorney general.

Report: Defeated Ahmadinejad rival arrested in Iran

Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was reportedly arrested Saturday following the reformist’s defeat at the polls by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supporters of Mousavi, the main challenger to Ahmadinejad, responded to the election with the most serious unrest in Tehran in a decade and charged that the result was the work of a dictatorship.

Mousavi’s arrest was reported by an unofficial source, according to whom the presidential hopeful was arrested en route to the home of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Read the full story at

Congressional Results: Two new Jews, but no rabbi

WASHINGTON (JTA)–The U.S. House of Representatives is getting two new Jewish members, but Tuesday night’s Democratic tide was not strong enough to sink several favorites of Jewish GOPers or to send Congress its first rabbi, Jewish Latina or Chinese Jew.

The 111th U.S. Congress is slated to have 13 Jewish senators and 31 members of the House of Representatives, with with the two first-time victories of Democrats Jared Polis of Colorado and John Adler of New Jersey.

But one of the most hotly contested Senate races, pitting two Jewish candidates against each other in Minnesota, may not be decided for days.

Republican incumbent Norm Coleman led Democratic challenger Al Franken by fewer than 700 votes in the Senate race in Minnesota. The slim margin of less than one-half of 1 percent will trigger an automatic recount in the race, in which independent Dean Barkley received 15 percent of the vote. Exit polling data showed Barkley pulling votes equally from the Democrat and Republican.

The recount comes after the two candidates spent more than $30 million, mostly attacking each other. Coleman using Franken’s background as a writer and performer for “Saturday Night Live” against him by highlighting jokes that were insensitive to women, while Franken charged that his GOP opponent was too close to big-money “special interests.”

Some had speculated that the Franken-Coleman race could be the key in determining whether Democrats would acquire a 60-member, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But with Democrats holding a 56-40 advantage in the Senate but Republicans ahead Wednesday morning in three other Senate races not yet official, that does not look to be the case.

In the only other Senate race matching two Jewish candidates, Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey won his fifth term, defeating the former Republican congressman, Dick Zimmer.

The number of Jewish senators will stay at 13–nine Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, one

Republican and one to be determined in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Polis of Colorado and Adler of New Jersey will bring the total number of Jewish legislators to 31.

They will be part of the most Democratic Congress since Bill Clinton’s first term as president in 1993, when Democrats controlled 258 seats. As of Wednesday morning, the Democrats had a 251-173 margin, with 11 seats still to be decided.

Polis, 33, will make history as the first openly gay, non-incumbent male elected to Congress. He will represent Colorado’s heavily Democratic 2nd Congressional District, which includes Boulder and other Denver suburbs.

The Democrat is a multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur who founded the Internet site for his parents’ Blue Mountain Arts greeting card company and donated more than $5 million to his own campaign.

During the campaign, Polis emphasized his background as a champion of public education–he is a founder of two Colorado charter schools and a six-year member of the state Board of Education.

The other newcomer is from southern New Jersey. Adler, 49, of Cherry Hill, will move into the seat of retiring Republican and stalwart Israel-backer Jim Saxton. Adler, a 16-year veteran of the state Senate, squeezed by Medford Mayor Chris Myers in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Ocean and Burlington counties, with 51.6 percent of the vote.

Adler’s signature achievement in state government was legislation banning smoking in indoor public places; he painted his GOP opponent as a “George W. Bush apologist” during the campaign.

Another Jewish candidate in New Jersey fell short. The “blind rabbi,” Dennis Shulman, was unsuccessful in his attempt to knock off three-term incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in the state’s 5th Congressional District, falling by a count of 56-42 percent.

“We did not win the election, but we were right” on issues, including education, health care, the environment and the Iraq war, Shulman said in his concession speech in Paramus, N.J.

The race had become heated in its closing weeks. Shulman, who had received a great deal of national attention for his unique personal story and got the endorsement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had called Garrett “too conservative” for their Bergen County-area district. He also accused Garrett of taking an improper tax break. Garrett denied any wrongdoing and called Shulman “too extreme for New Jersey” in a television advertisement.

Israel became an issue in the campaign when Garrett called on Shulman to “renounce” the endorsement he received from the left-leaning, pro-Israel group J Street. Shulman defended the endorsement, saying he backs the new group’s desire to see the United States play a more active role in promoting Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Garrett had received the endorsement of the New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC.

In Alaska, it appears that Jewish Democrat Ethan Berkowitz will go down to defeat in his challenge to the 18-term Republican incumbent, Rep. Don Young. Young, who is under investigation in the same bribery scandal for which fellow Republican Alaskan, Sen. Ted Stevens, was convicted last week, led by about 17,000 votes on Wednesday, although the race had not officially been called and Berkowitz had not conceded.

In another Republican stronghold with a small Jewish population, Jewish Democrat Gary Trauner was unsuccessful in his second attempt at Wyoming’s seat on Capitol Hill. After losing by a little more than 1,000 votes in 2006, Trauner was soundly beaten, by 53-43 percent, by former state treasurer Cynthia Lummis in the race to replace the retiring Republican, Barbara Cubin.

And in Alabama, Jewish Democrat Josh Segall ran a strong race but fell short, losing 53-47 percent to three-term incumbent Republican Mike Rogers. Segall was the rare candidate who stressed his areas of agreement with President Bush, but Rogers attacked the Democrat for being “too liberal” for the Montgomery-area district.

Meanwhile, all six Jewish freshman in the House will return to Washington in January for a second term.

Democrats Steve Kagen in Wisconsin, Paul Hodes in New Hampshire, Ron Klein in Florida, John Yarmuth in Kentucky, Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona and Steve Cohen in Tennessee all won re-election on Tuesday.

Kagen had the smallest margin of victory – about six points in a rematch of his 2006 race with Republican John Gard – while all the others won at least 55 percent of the vote. That included Giffords, whose race against Arizona Senate president Tim Bee matched the two former elementary and middle school classmates.

All other Jewish incumbents also won their races. And at least one non-Jewish House member with a lot of fans in the Jewish and pro-Israel community will return to Capitol Hill.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican representing Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, which includes Chicago’s heavily Jewish North Shore area, won 55 percent of the vote in his rematch with Democrat Dan Seals. The four-term incumbent, who supports abortion rights, is a close ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. A member of the House Foreign Affairs appropriations subcommittee, Kirk earlier this year introduced legislation backed by AIPAC that would have punished those selling refined gasoline to Iran.

The race was one of the most expensive House campaigns in the country, with the two candidates spending $6.8 million between them.

A number of other Jewish candidates were defeated on Tuesday as they attempted to enter the House for a first term. In Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Bob Lord was seen by pundits as having a chance to knock off seven-term GOP incumbent John Shadegg in the Phoenix suburbs, but the Republican triumphed by a 54-42 margin.

In Colorado’s 6th District, Democrat Hank Eng fell short in attempting to become the first Jewish Chinese-American in Congress. He received 40 percent of the vote in his race against Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman for a seat that has been held by a Republican since it was created in 1980.

In the Miami suburbs, Democrat Annette Taddeo failed to become the first Jewish Latina in Congress. The Colombian-born businesswoman lost to Cuban-born Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a 19-year incumbent who has been a strong advocate for Israel as the ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On the other side of the aisle, four Jewish Republican longshots all lost their races against well-known incumbents. In a matchup between two Jewish women in the Philadelphia-area’s 13th Congressional District, Democrat Allyson Schwartz easily defeated Republican Marina Kats, 63 percent to 34 percent. In New York’s 5th District, including parts of Queens and Nassau County, Republican Liz Berney received 28 percent of the vote in her race against Jewish Democrat Gary Ackerman.

Also, Republican Steve Greenberg lost by 20 points to Democrat Melissa Bean in Illinois’ 8th District, outside of Chicago, and Nick Gerber lost to Ellen Tauscher in California’s 10th District by a 34-point margin.

Another Jewish Republican lost an open seat on Staten Island that had been in GOP hands since 1983. Former state Assemblyman Bob Straniere, unpopular with the local Republican Party establishment but the victor in a primary, was routed by Democratic City Councilman Michael McMahon, 61 percent to 33 percent. The seat came open when Vito Fosella decided to leave Congress after his arrest earlier this year on drunk driving charges and the subsequent revelation that the married congressman had a girlfriend and child living in the Washington area.

There were Jewish Democratic longshots who were defeated as well.

In New Jersey’s 4th District, Jewish Democrat and history professor Joshua Zeitz received one-third of the vote in his quest to knock off the 28-year Republican incumbent, Rep. Christopher Smith.

In California’s 45th District, which includes Palm Springs, former state Assemblywoman Julie Bornstein lost to Republican Mary Bono Mack by a 56-44 margin. And in Virginia’s 10th District, outside of Washington, health policy expert Judy Feder lost her second consecutive challenge to the 14-term incumbent Republican, Rep. Frank Wolf, in Virginia’s 10th District, garnering 38 percent of the vote compared to Wolf’s 60 percent.

GOP Sweep Boosts Bush

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.