News Analysis: Letter Attacking Rival’s Jewishness May Have Hurt Boschwitz at the Polls
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News Analysis: Letter Attacking Rival’s Jewishness May Have Hurt Boschwitz at the Polls

A letter sent by supporters of Rudy Boschwitz questioning the Jewishness of challenger Paul Wellstone may have contributed to the incumbent senator’s political downfall.

Boschwitz, a Minnesota Republican, was the only incumbent senator in the country to lose his seat in the Nov. 6 elections. His Democratic successor is a scrappy Carleton College professor, known for his offbeat campaign commercials and devotion to progressive causes.

The Nov. 1 letter, which made headlines in the state’s major newspapers and news broadcasts, criticized Wellstone, the son of a Russian Jew, for raising his children as non-Jews and having “no connection whatever with the Jewish community or communal life.”

The letter, signed by 72 prominent Minnesota Jews, rocked the local Jewish community.

Many of the signers apparently had agreed to support a pro-Boschwitz letter, but were unaware it would attack Wellstone’s Jewish credentials. Many of them disavowed the letter afterward.

A number of other Jewish leaders deplored the introduction of personal religious issues into the political race.

Bob Weinholzer, chairman of the Independent-Republican party, conceded that the letter may have had a negative influence on undecided voters.

Wellstone’s campaign manager, John Blackshaw, went further, saying the letter “might well have been the final straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Wellstone himself said, “No candidate that writes such a letter deserves to be a United States senator.”

LETTER CRITICIZED BY ADL

For his part, Boschwitz denied writing the letter, but said prior to the election that he did not mind it being sent out. In retrospect, though, Boschwitz told Minnesota Public Radio the letter should never have been sent.

It would be ironic if Boschwitz, a staunch defender of Israel and active supporter of high profile causes central to Jewish life, were defeated because of a letter addressed to his “friends in the Minnesota Jewish community.”

But while the letter may have been a factor in Boschwitz’s defeat, the senator had been beleaguered by a number of problems in what most analysts acknowledge as the most unusual year in Minnesota political history.

Boschwitz’s maneuvering to encourage the withdrawal of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Grunseth 10 days before the election, in the wake of allegations of sexual improprieties, did not gain him any friends among conservative voters, a traditional Boschwitz stronghold.

He also was hurt by the lengthy congressional battle over the federal budget, which left many voters frustrated and kept Boschwitz away from Minnesota, where he could shake hands and defend his record.

With a high number of undecided voters in the final days of the campaign, the letter and its injection of religion into the race struck a sour note in an election year dominated more by character assassinations than issues.

Wellstone quickly responded to the letter with TV commercials claiming Minnesotans were tired of negative campaigning.

Editorials and opinion pieces in major newspapers also condemned the letter’s tactics. “Several sins are tolerable in a close election. Racism and assaults on a person’s religion ought not to be one of them,” wrote Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar.

Even the local office of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith issued a statement saying the “ADL has always viewed the injection of religion, race, national origin or sexual orientation into political campaigns as inappropriate and inherently divisive. We believe candidates should be evaluated solely on the basis of their individual qualifications.”

While it remains to be seen if the letter was the main cause of Boschwitz’s downfall, his defeat may serve as a warning to campaign managers about the risk of injecting religion into politics.