WASHINGTON (Nov. 3)
The faces may change, but the number of Jews in the U.S. Congress will stay the same for the next two years. And Jewish organizational officials are looking at several new lawmakers with excitement, and a few with concern.
Two Jewish Democratic women will join the House of Representatives in January, after winning open seats Tuesday.
And Congress will say goodbye to one of its most prominent Jewish members, as Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) lost his battle in a new district against another incumbent.
Several other Democratic Jews who tried to join Congress lost their long-shot bids.
Barring any unforeseen changes, there will be 11 Jews in the Senate and 26 in the House next year, the same numbers as the last two years.
The number of Jews in Congress is not indicative of how the Jewish community’s legislative agenda will fare in Congress. In fact, analysts say, the balance of power in each chamber is a more important factor.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives will stay in Republican hands next year, which could hurt the chances of some Jewish domestic policy priorities.
But, the Republicans have been seen as strongly supporting Israel in recent years.
But Jewish representation in each chamber is important to Jewish organizational officials, who feel some Jewish lawmakers are more interested in their issues and more willing to trumpet their agenda.
“Members of Congress with a Jewish background have a certain affinity for our community, and our community has a certain affinity for them,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.
There was much affinity for Frost, who lost to Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in a redrawn district that heavily favored the Republican.
A former House Democratic whip, Frost was considered an underdog in the redrawn district. He had strong support in the Jewish community, with several prominent Jews raising funds for him.
While Sessions is considered to be pro-Israel, Frost was viewed as a leader on that and other Jewish issues.
Jewish leaders will also say goodbye to several other lawmakers who worked with them, including Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Senate minority leader, and a few Democratic House members from Texas, who also lost as a result of Republican redistricting, similar to Frost.
Daschle worked well with Jewish leaders as the Democratic leader, but Jewish activists say his possible successors all have good track records as well. Daschle lost to former Rep. John Thune.
Florida state Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a rising star in the Democratic Party, won the seat vacated by another Jewish congressman, Rep. Peter Deutsch, her mentor.
Wasserman Schultz said she is excited to represent South Florida and would focus on homeland security as well as other domestic issues.
“I’m a reflection of my district,” Wasserman Schultz told JTA from her election headquarters Tuesday evening. “This is a community that is passionate about Israel and human services issues.”
Wasserman Schultz was heavily favored to win her seat in a heavily Democratic area. She defeated Margaret Hostetter.
At age 38, Wasserman Schultz has served in both houses of the Florida legislature, is on the regional board of the American Jewish Congress and helped to form the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Allyson Schwartz also won Tuesday, defeating Melissa Brown.
In the Philadelphia area, Schwartz defeated Melissa Brown on Tuesday. Schwartz will replace Rep. Joseph Hoeffel (D-Pa.), who ran against Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for the Senate.
“We ran a smart, modern campaign,” Schwartz told supporters Tuesday night. “We raised the money, and we communicated with voters any way that we could. We knocked on doors, and then we knocked on some more doors.”
Schwartz and Brown had been locked in a contentious battle. Brown accused Schwartz of having “radical views,” such as opposing the death penalty in all cases and supporting tax increases.
Schwartz counter-charged that Brown committed insurance fraud with her husband when they founded a doctor-owned HMO.
In the Senate, Specter won his fifth term Tuesday, defeating Hoeffel, one of his strongest challengers since first winning his seat in 1980. The Jewish Republican had defeated Rep. Pat Toomey in the Republican primary.
Specter’s victory is important because he is one of few Jewish Republicans in Congress, and he has the most seniority among them. He is expected to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, which could play a pivotal role in approving federal and U.S. Supreme Court judges.
Four other Jewish senators won re-election handily — Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Other than Frost, all other Jewish incumbents won election, many against only token challengers.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) defeated a Jewish candidate, Eric Fingerhut, to win re-election. Fingerhut is a former member of the House of Representatives.
In Florida, Jan Schneider was unsuccessful in a second attempt to defeat Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), known for her work as Florida’s secretary of state in the controversial 2000 recount.
In New Hampshire, Paul Hodes, a Jewish Democrat, lost a bid against the incumbent Republican, Rep. Charles Bass.
In Virginia, David Ashe was unsuccessful in his race to replace Rep. Edward Schrock (R-Va.). Ashe, a Jewish Democrat, lost to Thelma Drake, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates. Ashe had little political experience but served with the Marines in Iraq.
Jewish officials say they are energized about some of the new members of the Senate, including Barack Obama, who easily defeated Alan Keyes in Illinois.
While in the Illinois state senate, Obama worked to improve black-Jewish relations in the state and has advocated stronger U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And several of the new Republican members of the Senate are considered strong friends of Israel, such as Rep. Jim DeMint in South Carolina, Rep. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Rep. Richard Burr in North Carolina.
The same is being said about the new Colorado senator, Democrat Ken Salazar.
But in Oklahoma, many Jews are likely to be concerned about the election of former Rep. Tom Coburn, a Republican, to the state’s open Senate seat. Coburn, an obstetrician, is staunchly against abortion, and was plagued by charges that he sterilized a woman without her consent, and by recent comments suggesting “lesbianism” is rampant in state schools.
Similar concerns have been raised about Rep. David Vitter, who won an open election in Louisiana. Vitter is seen as a conservative lawmaker as well, and has campaigned against abortion and gambling.
Coburn also was against foreign aid when he served in the House of Representatives, and has not said he would back it in the Senate. Pro-Israel groups supported his opponent, Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.).
Jews are also watching the return of Cynthia McKinney, a former congresswoman who made headlines with anti-Israel statements. McKinney won her heavily Democratic district Tuesday.
Democrats said they hope McKinney will moderate her anti-Israel rhetoric.
“Cynthia has views that are almost unique to herself,” Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told JTA in September.
“Frankly I have not had any discussions with Cynthia for some period of time, so I don’t know whether she has modified her views, but they are not shared by anybody I know of that is in the Democratic caucus today.”
McKinney was able to return to the House in part because Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) did not seek re-election this year, choosing to challenge Isakson for the open Senate seat. Majette was heavily supported by Jewish donor in 2002, but did not receive similar support from Jews this time around.
Two Senate races remained too close to call. In Florida, Democrat Betty Castor, the former state commissioner of education, was locked in a battle with Mel Martinez, the former secretary of housing and urban development. Castor has been accused of allowing an Islamic Jihad ally to operate a front for the terrorist group at the University of South Florida when Castor was the school’s president.
In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican, was looking to hold the seat she was appointed to by her father two years ago. Murkowski, who is up against former Gov. Tony Knowles, was backed by some pro-Israel advocates because of a strong voting record in the last Congress.