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Jewish races to watch in 2006

WASHINGTON, July 13 (JTA) — Sixteen months before the 2006 congressional elections, fund-raising has already started in earnest across the country. Jewish and pro-Israel political groups have determined some places to focus their resources this year. It’s too soon to tell which members of the U.S. House of Representatives will be vulnerable, but the Senate picture is a bit clearer: • Florida — Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is considered vulnerable in a state that has increasingly leaned Republican in recent years. In polls, he is garnering around 50 percent, and it remains unclear who his challenger will be. Nelson has more than $2 million on hand and is expected to get strong support from pro-Israel donors and the statewide Jewish community. Rep. Katherine Harris (R), known nationwide for her role as Florida’s secretary of state in the 2000 presidential election recount, has announced her candidacy, and her name recognition could make it a tight contest. • Maryland — Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) is retiring after five terms in the Senate, and several candidates have emerged to seek his seat. Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D) is considered the early front-runner. Kwesi Mfume, a former congressman and former president and CEO of the NAACP, is running as well, while Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) announced Monday he will not seek the Senate seat. Both Cardin and Mfume have good records on Israel, but Cardin, who is Jewish, has stronger support and better relationships with community leaders. The most likely Republican challenger is Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is well liked in the state and has made inroads into the Jewish community. • Minnesota — The departure of Sen. Mark Dayton (D) leaves the race wide open. Pro-Israel groups have centered their support around Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), who has accumulated a strong record on Israel since entering the House of Representatives in 2001. Several Democrats are running or considering the race, most notably Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar, the chief prosecutor of all adult felony and juvenile crimes in the area. Al Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer who co-hosts a program on the liberal Air America Radio, had considered entering the race but then announced that he won’t run. • New Jersey — Sen. Jon Corzine (D) is considered a favorite for governor next year and, if elected, will appoint a replacement in the Senate. He may name a caretaker but could vault one of the state’s Democratic congressmen to the front-runner list for the Senate. Most lawmakers in New Jersey, on both sides of the aisle, are respected by supporters of Israel, and much rests on Corzine’s decision. • Pennsylvania — Sen. Rick Santorum (R) presents a conundrum for many Jewish voters: He’s a darling of the pro-Israel community for his leadership on Middle East issues and his stance against international anti-Semitism, but he’s an anathema to liberal-minded Jews because of his positions on social issues, such as his firm anti-abortion views. While Santorum is expected to get strong support from some Jewish quarters, many Jews are mobilizing behind the state treasurer, Bob Casey, who has been actively courting the Jewish vote. Some Jewish PACs are not backing Casey, however, because he is pro-life. • Rhode Island — Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) has disappointed pro-Israel advocates, who have not been impressed with his work as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near Eastern and South Asian affairs subcommittee. Chafee may be challenged for the Republican nomination by Stephen Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, and pro-Israel PACs will back Laffey. The former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse has received the support of Democratic Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Jim Langevin and will face Secretary of State Matt Brown in a primary. The winner should expect Jewish support, especially if he runs against Chafee. • Tennessee — Sen. Bill Frist (R) will not seek re-election. While the state has increasingly leaned Republican in recent years, Rep. Harold Ford (D) has name recognition and could be a strong Democratic candidate who will receive help from Jewish groups. Several Republicans are expected to make it a tight primary race. • West Virginia — Sen. Robert Byrd (D) has angered pro-Israel advocates for years; this year he frustrated other Jewish activists as well when he compared Republicans to Adolf Hitler. The senator recently published a new autobiography, in which he continues to apologize for his youthful activities with the Ku Klux Klan. A member of the Senate since 1959, Byrd has rarely encountered strong challengers, but he could this year if Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) enters the race. Capito would get a lot of help from pro-Israel PACs if she decides to run. In addition, several other candidates are expected to attract pro-Israel Jewish money, even without strong challengers. They include Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), both longtime darlings of the Jewish community. In addition, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is expected to receive funds from those seeking to curry favor with a likely 2008 presidential candidate.