Elections ’98: Small Jewish Vote May Decide Outcome in Close Senate Races
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Elections ’98: Small Jewish Vote May Decide Outcome in Close Senate Races

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Sen. Alfonse D’Amato wanted to lend his voice to a media event calling on the Palestinian Authority to extradite to the United States suspects in terror attacks that killed American citizens.

But there was one condition: Organizers must scrap plans to invite other candidates to the event.

D’Amato was the only elected official at the Sept. 8 event, scoring another victory in his aggressive campaign to one-up his Jewish challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), in the Jewish community.

That a senator muscled his opponent out of the way is common in campaigns.

What’s unusual are the efforts that both D’Amato and Schumer have exerted to score points with Jewish voters, who represent an estimated 9 percent of New York’s voting population.

D’Amato has sought to wrap himself in the support of Holocaust survivors, an unprecedented strategy that has elevated the tensions between him and Schumer in what has become one of the closest and most expensive Senate races in the country.

In states where there are tight races — New York and California, in particular — how a candidate’s message fares in the Jewish community could mean the difference between delivering a concession speech or basking in cheers at a victory celebration.

At stake on Nov. 3 are 34 Senate seats, including four of the 10 Jewish members.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are heavy favorites to win re-election. Polls show Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Barbara Boxer (D- Calif.) running in dead heats with their challengers.

In Georgia, Michael Coles, a Jewish Democratic businessman, is battling to unseat Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell. While the Jewish vote is not likely to play a determinative role in Wisconsin or Georgia, school vouchers and prayer in schools are among the issues dividing the candidates.

How Jewish candidates fare across the country is likely to determine whether the Republicans, who currently hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, can achieve their goal of a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats.

For more than two years, D’Amato and Schumer have campaigned for Jewish support in what has become a heavyweight battle to represent New York state in Congress’ upper house.

Statewide contests in New York historically hinge on how New York City’s population votes compared with upstate residents.

D’Amato has always received high marks from the pro-Israel community, but Democratic candidates usually score well in the city.

And Schumer has a sterling reputation as a supporter of Israel and has also authored many pro-Israel measures during his tenure in the House.

In 1992, some 60 percent of Jewish voters chose D’Amato’s Democratic rival. While his share of the Jewish vote that year is considered good for a Republican in New York, D’Amato labored to win more Jewish supporters.

With the help of Jewish leader Edgar Bronfman, D’Amato emerged as the champion of Holocaust survivors in their legal wrangling with Switzerland and other European countries whose central banks and leading companies profited from the Holocaust.

D’Amato, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has tried to make the most of his high-profile campaign for Holocaust survivors. In fact, he has aired what is believed to be the first campaign commercial featuring Holocaust footage.

D’Amato’s quest came to a head Oct. 18 when, flanked by two Holocaust survivors and with a rabbi leading a campaign rally, the incumbent criticized Schumer for missing House votes related to the hunt for Holocaust victims’ assets in the United States and one that made the Capitol rotunda available for an annual Holocaust commemoration.

Bringing a major theme of his campaign to Jewish issues — that Schumer has missed too many votes — D’Amato said at the rally, “I’m proud to have been there fighting every day, making a difference for justice for those who have been stonewalled.”

The rally was vintage D’Amato.

Schumer “does not care,” D’Amato said. “He’s not there on the battlefields because he was too busy” pursuing his political career, D’Amato charged standing in front of the Holocaust memorial that stands near the United Nations on Manhattan’s East Side.

Schumer responded quickly and strongly.

“I think it’s a shame that Al D’Amato would stoop to using the Holocaust for political purposes,” Schumer said. “My record on the Holocaust, on Jewish issues, is second to none.”

The Holocaust flap seems mild compared to an all out war that has erupted in the waning days of the campaign.

At a breakfast meeting with Jewish supporters, D’Amato called Schumer a “putzhead.”

D’Amato initially denied making the comment but then admitted that he had.

Schumer went ballistic, accusing the senator of using a “cheap slur against me and then when asked, lied about it,” Schumer said.

The charges hit D’Amato hard, who during the 1992 election mocked a Japanese American judge in a fake accent on a radio show.

D’Amato wrote in a letter to Schumer, “The Yiddish word I used to describe you at a private meeting means fool.”

He continued, “I stand by my remark 100 percent.”

But the fallout also continued over D’Amato’s reference at the same meeting to the heavyset New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler as “Congressman Waddler,” who D’Amato imitated by waddling like a duck.

D’Amato’s comments coupled with Schumer’s attack appeared to be swaying Jewish voters into the Democratic camp.

Among Jewish voters polled in the days following the episode, 57 percent favored Schumer compared with 28 percent for D’Amato. Compared to earlier polls, D’Amato lost the support of 7 percent of Jewish voters while Schumer gained 4 percent.

On the other coast, Holocaust activism has not become a divisive campaign issue because both candidates have been speaking out on the issue for much of the past year, local political activists say.

As one of only a handful of senators to attend all of the Senate Banking Committee’s hearings on Holocaust-era claims, Boxer played a key role in the issue. Her opponent, State Treasurer Matt Fong, also has been outspoken on Holocaust-related issues, having threatened earlier this year to cut off California’s dealings with Swiss banks.

Unlike in New York, California’s Jewish voters, who represent some 3 percent of the electorate, are not being asked to choose their senator on the basis of Holocaust issues.

Voters and candidates have focused on abortion, gun control and tax cuts.

Fong has also tried to make Boxer’s support for President Clinton in the wake of the sex scandal a major campaign issue in the race.

Elsewhere, the two races where issues of paramount importance to Jewish activists are playing out — Wisconsin and Georgia — there are probably not enough Jewish voters to make a difference.

In Wisconsin, Feingold is in a tight race against Republican Rep. Mark Neumann. Feingold, who has gained national recognition by sponsoring the main campaign finance reform bill, has scored points by playing up Neumann’s support for a school prayer constitutional amendment and for vouchers.

But the state’s 28,500-strong Jewish community, representing about one-half of 1 percent of Wisconsin’s population, would only come into play if the race were decided by the slimmest of margins.

In Georgia, Sen. Coverdell, a Republican, and author of some of the most visible private and parochial school funding programs in the last Congress, is expected to easily defeat his Democratic opponent, Michael Coles, the Jewish cookie king who founded the Great American Cookie Company.

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