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Elections ’98: Congressional Elections Spark Little Excitement Across Nation

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Referring to the retired television sitcom about nothing, political handicappers had once labeled next month’s Congressional elections the “Seinfeld campaign.”

But with the Monica Lewinsky scandal still dominating the political landscape, top political activists have now labeled Election 1998 the “Melrose Place campaign.”

And just like the steamy Fox sitcom, the election is struggling for viewers.

Before President Clinton’s televised admission last month of an improper relationship with the former White House intern, the election was shaping up to be the least engaging of the decade. Now all bets are off in the last balloting of the 20th century.

“The only thing for sure is that anyone who tells you that they know what is going to happen doesn’t know what they are talking about,” said Michael Bloomfield, political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election. But unlike other campaigns in the 1990s that saw record turnover, there are only 34 open seats with no incumbent running and only another couple of dozen competitive races.

In the Senate 34 members — including 4 of the 10 Jewish members — are battling across the country to be heard over the debate surrounding the presidential sex scandal and possible impeachment.

Although the campaign has not ignited national excitement, Jewish activists argue that much is at stake for the community in the 106th Congress that will be elected Nov. 3.

In addition to critical domestic issues — including a host of spending concerns — the next Congress is likely to determine the future of the refugee program for Jews from the former Soviet Union and play a critical role in shaping U.S. public opinion when the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords reach their deadline for final agreement next May.

Inside the Washington Beltway, self-imposed Republican term limits for committee and subcommittee chairmen will kick in, once again changing the dynamics of key committees that shape legislation of paramount concern to the Jewish community.

Significant political upheaval is also likely from a Republican battle to succeed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is also slated to step down sometime during the next Congress. Democratic leadership posts are also up for grabs during the next two years.

As Election Day nears, uncertainty abounds over the presidential scandal’s impact. Democrats are praying for a backlash against Republicans for their handling of the impeachment investigation. At the same time, Republicans are hoping that Democratic voters, depressed by presidential scandal, will stay home.

So far, according to polls released at the end of September, the election is not shaping up to be a referendum on Clinton’s scandal, and Democrats have not told pollsters that they plan to stay home. The number of likely voters, however, consistently favor Republican candidates in the closest House and Senate races.

The polls also show that Democrats cannot retake control of the House, where the Republicans now hold a 228-206 majority. There is one independent member. The Republicans control 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate, but they will likely fall short of securing a filibuster-proof 60 seat majority.

The chances of success for Jewish candidates is mixed.

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Wash.) are heavy favorites to win re-election. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is facing a stiff challenge from State Treasurer Matt Fong. Republicans and Democrats alike believe that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) could be upset by Rep. Mark Neumann, a Republican.

And in the political equivalent of a heavyweight championship bout, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) is facing off against Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Both candidates are making major plays for Jewish support in the election. D’Amato is running what is believed to be the first political ad featuring footage from the Holocaust to highlight his role in securing the recent $1.25 billion settlement from Switzerland’s leading banks.

Most Jewish incumbents in the House are running strong in their races with the notable exception of Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), who has served in the House since 1983. Michigan Democrats fear that the controversial Democratic gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer for assisted suicide Dr. Jack Kevorkian, will drain voters from other Democratic candidates. Fieger has compared Orthodox rabbis who opposed physician-assisted suicide to Nazis.

Israel is not a predominant issue in the congressional races.

“There is no real grabber race on Israel,” said Morris Amitay, the treasurer and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC.

While many voters might not pull the lever based only on concern for Israel, candidates continue to capitalize on their support for the Jewish state.

“We are writing to ask for your urgent support of one of America’s most important new pro-Israel leaders,” chairman of the AIPAC board Melvin Dow and former chairman Larry Weinberg wrote in a private letter soliciting support for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

Sherman, a freshman member of the House, won election in 1996 with 51 percent of the vote.

“Returning Brad Sherman to the United States Congress is an important means of strengthening support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Brad has been there when we needed him. Now it’s up to us to be there when he needs us!” the letter said.

Similar appeals have gone out for Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.), a member of the House International Relations Committee, who is locking horns once again with Joseph Hoeffel, the Montgomery County commissioner. Fox won the last election by a razor-thin majority.

The Fox-Hoeffel race is one of the few where Clinton’s troubles are playing a direct role in the campaign. Last week Hoeffel said he will stay away from Clinton’s Philadelphia fund-raiser.

“I don’t want to be distracted by all of this sensational and salacious focus on the president’s behavior,” Hoeffel said in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I would love to have Hillary (Rodham Clinton) back. I would love to have Al Gore. But not Bill Clinton.”

Jewish Democrats put on a brave face arguing that “each candidate running for office is making a decision based on what they think is best to win that office,” said Stephen Silberfarb, National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Hoeffel is in a very close race. Who can blame him for trying to create the best environment he feels is necessary to get elected?” Silberfarb said.

But Republicans say the Lewinsky scandal is the beginning of the end for Democratic candidates in close races.

The Lewinsky scandal is “not going to play out as a vote for or against people but will have a dramatic impact on turnout. Democrats feel abandoned. Republicans are clearly engaged,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition.

Predictably, Silberfarb disagreed.

“The Republicans are like the Palestinians, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” Silberfarb said, alluding to Israeli statesman Abba Eban’s famous saying. “Republicans have pushed the Democrats back together.”

Brooks and Silberfarb did agree, however, that in the world of congressional campaigns, there’s a lot of time between now and election day.

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