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Elections ’98: Jewish Candidates Win Big, Swelling Senate Ranks to 11

November 5, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

ELECTIONS `98: Jewish candidates win big, swelling Senate ranks to 11 Jewish candidates rode the unprecedented Democratic surge to victory this week as tight election races across the nation broke in their favor, swelling their representation in the U.S. Senate to record levels.

In fact the only Jewish incumbent to lose a seat Tuesday in the nationwide races for Senate and House of Representatives was Rep. Jon Fox, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Democrat Charles Schumer’s upset win Tuesday over Republican incumbent Alfonse D’Amato in the New York race for Senate means that for the first time ever, the upper chamber of Congress will include 11 Jewish members. But despite the election of three new members, the Jewish caucus in the House will again shrink, from 25 to 23, resulting in the smallest delegation of the decade.

Schumer’s convincing victory, Fox’s defeat in Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s win over State Treasurer Matt Fong in California together struck a devastating blow to Jewish Republicans, who had launched a campaign of their own to convince GOP candidates to actively woo Jewish voters.

Fox had been groomed by pro-Israel activists as a leader in his party after receiving a coveted post on the International Relations Committee. His defeat means that Jewish Republicans will see their representation go from three to one in the House.

Only Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) remains from the last class, after cruising to re-election against a Jewish opponent, Paul Feiner. Rep. Steve Schiff (R- N.M.) died last year of cancer.

“Obviously we would like to see more Jewish Republicans, but let me tell you, Arlen Specter and Benjamin Gilman do the work of 20 Jewish Republicans,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition, said referring to the Pennsylvania senator and New York congressman, respectively.

Nationally, Jews voted by a 78 percent to 21 percent margin for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, helping to undermine several Republican candidates.

“There was a tidal wave that swept these guys out and took the Jewish vote with them,” Brooks said.

Exuberant Jewish Democrats, some singing “Siman Tov and Mazel Tov,” hailed the role that Jewish voters played in election.

“Jewish Democrats helped to relieve the six-year itch,” said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, referring to the historical trend that the president’s party loses more than 40 House seats in midterm elections. This time around, Democrats gained a projected five seats in the House.

“The biannual claim by Jewish Republicans that Jews are voting more Republican has been shattered once and for all,” said Silberfarb. “Jews vote Democratic.”

In fact, the only Republican to break the 30 percent barrier of the Jewish vote in a statewide race was Peter Fitzgerald, who defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, winning 34 percent of the Jewish vote against Moseley-Braun’s 62 percent.

Jewish Republicans pointed to the race as proof that a “hard-core conservative who is strongly pro-life can still do well among Jewish voters,” Brooks said.

But Democrats countered that Moseley-Braun was hurt by ethical violations and never stood a realistic chance of surviving election night.

Much attention was focused this week on Schumer’s win over D’Amato in a bitterly fought race where Jewish issues and unprecedented appeals to Jewish voters played out front and center.

While balloons at one of the last campaign rallies of the 1998 New York Senate race hailed the Republican incumbent, “D’Amato, D’Mensch,” in the end the three-term Republican was defeated.

In the most expensive race of the season, D’Amato had called in all his chits from his battle on behalf of Holocaust survivors against Swiss banks and European insurance companies. The feisty senator had aired the first known campaign commercial to include Holocaust footage, campaigned in front of New York City’s Holocaust memorial and brought the family of the 1991 Crown Heights riots victim, Yankel Rosenbaum, to campaign by his side, all the while accusing his Jewish opponent of not supporting Jewish constituents in Congress.

But only weeks before the election, D’Amato called Schumer a “putzhead” at a meeting with Jewish supporters, giving his opponent another avenue for attack. In a sign that the comment hurt D’Amato with Jewish voters, many split their ticket, with 38 percent supporting the re-election of New York’s Republican Gov. George Pataki, but only 23 percent voting for D’Amato.

Schumer took 77 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls, defeating D’Amato by a margin of 55 to 45 percent of the total vote.

“Had D’Amato not had a self-inflicted wound in the Jewish community, he would have done better,” Brooks said, citing polls before the “putzhead” episode that predicted the Republican incumbent would receive almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote.

One pro-Israel activist said the disparity between the Jewish support for D’Amato and Pataki proves that Jews, as a group, “are in play” and need to be courted.

But even if D’Amato had scored as well in the Jewish community as he had in 1992, Schumer still would have won re-election.

D’Amato’s loss was not the only disappointment for Jewish Republicans who had hoped their party would make new inroads among Jewish voters. A study for the National Jewish Coalition by Republican pollster Frank Luntz had found that Jewish voters would support Republican candidates in spite of their domestic agenda if they strongly supported Israel against pressure from the Clinton administration.

In California, Fong adopted the strategy after a meeting with the Republican Jewish group, touting his role in the battle for Holocaust assets. But in the end, he took only 18 percent of California’s Jewish vote. Boxer surpassed previous Jewish high marks, receiving 82 percent support, according to exit polls.

Fong was hurt by a late report that he contributed $50,000 to the Traditional Values Coalition, a staunchly pro-life, anti-gay group. Boxer painted Fong as an extremist for his support of the group, which is headed by Rev. Lou Sheldon. Sheldon has said he was born Jewish and converted after “seeing the light of Christ” in his teen-age years.

Religion was not polled in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter, the only Jewish Republican in the Senate, scored an expected convincing victory, 62 to 30 percent against Democrat Bill Lloyd.

But local and national activists believe that he received the lion’s share of the Jewish vote.

The most endangered Jewish senator, Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, held on and defeated Rep. Mark Neumann, a Republican, by 51 to 49 percent. Feingold, the co-author of the primary campaign finance reform bill in the last Congress, limited his spending in the race and refused to accept outside help.

The only other Jewish senator up for re-election, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), cruised to re-election as expected, winning 59 to 36 percent against Republican John Lim.

In Georgia, Jewish Democratic candidate Michael Coles had a surprisingly strong showing, winning 45 percent of the vote, but it was not enough to defeat Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), who won 52 percent of the vote.

In the House, Democratic Jewish candidates swept into office, as all incumbents won re-election despite strong challenges.

Among the winners were two freshmen Jewish members, Reps. Steve Rothman (D- N.J.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who wear their pro-Israel activism on their sleeves and labored during the past two years to stake out positions favored by the Jewish community.

Illinois state Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Jewish Democrat, won an election to succeed a veteran Chicago-area congressman, Sidney Yates, who decided to retire. Yates served as dean of the House Jewish caucus.

Schumer’s seat was filled by Anthony Weiner, a Jewish Democrat from Brooklyn.

In Nevada, another Jewish Democrat, Shelley Berkley, defeated Don Chairez by a 49 percent to 46 percent margin. Veteran Jewish Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who had faced early trouble, also won re-election.

In North Carolina, a Jewish Republican candidate, Tom Roberg, lost to Democratic Rep. David Price by a margin of 57 to 42 percent.

In Michigan, Jewish Democratic Rep. Sander Levin survived a strong challenge in a year dominated by controversial Democratic gubernatorial candidate Geoffrey Fieger. As an attorney for assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, Fieger had said that a local board of Orthodox rabbis opposed to euthanasia “are closer to Nazis than they think they are.”

Three Jewish gubernatorial candidates — in Hawaii, Ohio and Minnesota — lost their bids for election.

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