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Elections ’98: Incumbents in Tight Contests Stress Support on Israel Issues

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) led the charge for full Israeli membership at the United Nations.

Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) carried the torch for U.S. aid to Israel.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) fought to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

All three Jewish members of Congress wear their pro-Israel activism on their sleeves and have labored during the past two years to stake out positions favored by the Jewish community. They also have something else in common — all are among the most vulnerable incumbents heading into Election Day.

They join Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) who is facing a well-financed challenger and hindered by voter backlash against a controversial Democratic gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket.

The four are among the unlucky few. With all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives up for election on Nov. 3, a historically low 50 seats remain truly competitive in the final days of the campaign.

Since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections. But this year Republican gains are likely to be much less. In 94 races, incumbents are facing no opposition from a major party candidate. In addition, there are only 33 seats with no incumbent running for re-election. The Republicans currently hold a 228 to 206 majority. There is one independent member.

Jewish representation in the next Congress, however, is likely to decrease, even if all the races break favorably for the Jewish candidates.

Of the 25 Jewish members elected in 1996, Reps. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), who held the seat for 48 of the past 50 years, and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) are retiring. Rep. Steven Schiff (R-N.M.) died earlier this year of cancer. Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is running for the Senate.

The seats held by Yates and Schumer are expected to be filled by Jewish Democratic candidates, Illinois state Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Anthony Weiner, respectively.

The other best chance for a pickup appears to be in Nevada where Shelley Berkley is running strongly against Don Chairez to fill an open seat.

The national Democratic party has launched an aggressive get out the vote drive to support Berkley. Turnout in the black community, which represents more than 9 percent of the district, is believed to be the key to the race, according to local political activists.

Another Jewish candidate, veteran Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), showed early signs of weakness but has rebounded in recent weeks.

Unlike the 1996 election when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became a national issue for Democrats and church-state issues galvanized Jewish voters, this year’s races are proving the “all politics is local” rule.

Lacking any major national issues unifying the individual races, candidates are waging their battles for House seats largely on personalities and issues of local concern. To be sure, for some voters this means Social Security, Medicare, tax relief or education. For others it’s the impeachment investigation of President Clinton.

While voters, including American Jews, have shied away from pulling the lever based solely on foreign affairs and Israel, these issues, according to exit polls in recent elections, do contribute to their decisions.

With this in mind, candidates like Rothman, Fox and Sherman are chasing every Jewish vote.

Fox, first elected in 1994, won by only 84 votes in 1996. This year local politician Joseph Hoeffel is back with a vengeance in this traditionally Republican district in suburban Philadelphia.

Fox, one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House, has gained high marks from pro-Israel activists who hope he will emerge as a leader on their issues in the International Relations Committee where he serves.

But his 92 percent support rating from the Christian Coalition has hurt him with many moderate voters, according to local political activists. Planned Parenthood has entered the race, giving money to and endorsing Hoeffel over Fox who has a pro-life voting record in Congress.

Hoeffel has gained support from Jewish Democrats across the country and has received thousands of dollars from the National Jewish Democratic Council’s political action committee.

But he remains far behind Fox in fund raising. Republican party committees, which held a 3 to 1 advantage going into the final weeks of the election, have made the Fox race one of their priorities.

About 100 miles north, Rothman is battling against businessman Steve Lonegan in New Jersey. Rothman has touted his initiative to secure a spot for Israel in a regional group at the United Nations in order to ensure full membership rights for the Jewish state, especially a rotating seat on the Security Council.

But this contest, according to local political activists, will be won or lost on the traditional issues such as taxes, education and Social Security.

On the other coast, Sherman is facing Randy Hoffman, a Republican businessman. Federal spending on education has become a key campaign issue. But like many California races, bilingual education and immigrant issues have come to the fore.

It has yet to be seen if Sherman’s high profile pro-Israel activism pays as much reward at the ballot box as it has at the bank.

Two American Israel Public Affairs Committee leaders, chairman Melvin Dow and former chairman Larry Weinberg, wrote a private letter soliciting support for Sherman.

“We are writing to ask for your urgent support of one of America’s most important new pro-Israel leaders,” they wrote.

“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.

In Michigan, Levin, who is not known for his abilities on the stump as a candidate, is facing a credible threat from Republican Leslie Touma.

But if Levin loses, it is less likely to be as a result of his campaign. Michigan Democrats are facing a statewide drag from Geoffrey Feiger, the Democratic candidate for governor.

Feiger, who gained recognition as the attorney for assisted suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian, has put fellow Democrats on the defensive throughout the campaign. Polls show that Democrats may stay at home on Election Day.

In the heat of a Kevorkian campaign, Feiger attacked Orthodox rabbis who have come out against Kevorkian. These rabbis “are closer to Nazis than they think they are,” Feiger said.

Win or lose, these candidates are likely to fare better than three Jewish challengers.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), who is Jewish and chairs the International House Committee, is facing off against Democrat Paul Feiner, who also is Jewish. Polls show Gilman with a commanding lead.

Also in New York, Rep. Peter King, who has made a name for himself in the Jewish community for his campaign against government contracting with security firms associated with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, is likely to trounce Kevin Langberg, who is Jewish.

Tom Roberg, a Jewish Republican, is waging an uphill battle against Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who has represented a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 for 10 of the past 12 years.

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