Congressional roundup: Three new Jews, but no rabbi

Supporter comforts Dennis Shulman following his unsuccessful bid to become the first rabbi elected to the U.S. Congress. (Ben Harris)

Supporter comforts Dennis Shulman following his unsuccessful bid to become the first rabbi elected to the U.S. Congress. (Ben Harris)

VIDEO: Dennis Shulman fails in his bid to become the first rabbi in Congress. (Ben Harris / JTA)

VIDEO: Dennis Shulman fails in his bid to become the first rabbi in Congress. (Ben Harris / JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. House of Representatives is getting three new Jewish members, but Tuesday night’s Democratic tide was not strong enough to sink several favorites of Jewish GOPers or to send Congress its first rabbi, Jewish Latina or Chinese Jew.

The 111th U.S. Congress is slated to have 13 Jewish senators and 32 members of the House of Representatives, with the three first-time victories of Democrats Jared Polis of Colorado, John Adler of New Jersey and Alan Grayson of Florida.

But one of the most hotly contested Senate races, pitting two Jewish candidates against each other in Minnesota, may not be decided for days.

Republican incumbent Norm Coleman led Democratic challenger Al Franken by fewer than 700 votes in the Senate race in Minnesota. The slim margin of less than one-half of 1 percent triggered an automatic recount in the race, in which independent Dean Barkley received 15 percent of the vote. Exit polling data showed Barkley pulling votes equally from the Democrat and Republican.

The recount comes after the two candidates spent more than $30 million, mostly attacking each other. Coleman using Franken’s background as a writer and performer for “Saturday Night Live” against him by highlighting jokes that were insensitive to women, while Franken charged that his GOP opponent was too close to big-money “special interests.”

Some had speculated that the Franken-Coleman race could be the key in determining whether Democrats would acquire a 60-member, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But with Democrats holding a 56-40 advantage in the Senate but Republicans ahead Wednesday morning in three other Senate races not yet official, that does not look to be the case.

In the only other Senate race matching two Jewish candidates, Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey won his fifth term, defeating the former Republican congressman, Dick Zimmer.

The number of Jewish senators will stay at 13 — nine Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, one Republican and one to be determined in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Polis, Adler and Grayson will bring the total number of Jewish legislators to 32.

They will be part of the most Democratic Congress since Bill Clinton’s first term as president in 1993, when Democrats controlled 258 seats. As of Wednesday morning, the Democrats had a 251-173 margin, with 11 seats still to be decided.

Polis, 33, will make history as the first openly gay, non-incumbent male elected to Congress. He will represent Colorado’s heavily Democratic 2nd Congressional District, which includes Boulder and other Denver suburbs.

The Democrat is a multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur who founded the Internet site for his parents’ Blue Mountain Arts greeting card company and donated more than $5 million to his own campaign.

During the campaign, Polis emphasized his background as a champion of public education — he is a founder of two Colorado charter schools and a six-year member of the state Board of Education.

The other newcomer is from southern New Jersey. Adler, 49, of Cherry Hill, will move into the seat of retiring Republican and stalwart Israel-backer Jim Saxton. Adler, a 16-year veteran of the state Senate, squeezed by Medford Mayor Chris Myers in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Ocean and Burlington counties, with 51.6 percent of the vote.

Adler’s signature achievement in state government was legislation banning smoking in indoor public places; he painted his GOP opponent as a “George W. Bush apologist” during the campaign.

Another Jewish candidate in New Jersey fell short. The “blind rabbi,” Dennis Shulman, was unsuccessful in his attempt to knock off three-term incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in the state’s 5th Congressional District, falling by a count of 56-42 percent.

“We did not win the election, but we were right” on issues, including education, health care, the environment and the Iraq war, Shulman said in his concession speech in Paramus, N.J.

The race had become heated in its closing weeks. Shulman, who had received a great deal of national attention for his unique personal story and got the endorsement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had called Garrett “too conservative” for their Bergen County-area district. He also accused Garrett of taking an improper tax break. Garrett denied any wrongdoing and called Shulman “too extreme for New Jersey” in a television advertisement.

Israel became an issue in the campaign when Garrett called on Shulman to “renounce” the endorsement he received from the left-leaning, pro-Israel group J Street. Shulman defended the endorsement, saying he backs the new group’s desire to see the United States play a more active role in promoting Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Garrett had received the endorsement of the New Jersey-based, pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC.

Grayson, 50, defeated four-term Republican incumbent Ric Keller to win his seat in a central Florida district that includes parts of Orlando. A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Grayson is an attorney who has investigated government fraud and waste in the Iraq War and defended whistleblowers who have accused defense contractors of misconduct. He wants to pull out of Iraq to free up spending for domestic issues and backs universal health-care coverage.

In Alaska, it appears that Jewish Democrat Ethan Berkowitz will go down to defeat in his challenge to the 18-term Republican incumbent, Rep. Don Young. Young, who is under investigation in the same bribery scandal for which fellow Republican  Alaskan, Sen. Ted Stevens, was convicted last week, led by about 17,000 votes on Wednesday, although the race had not officially been called and Berkowitz had not conceded.

In another Republican stronghold with a small Jewish population, Jewish Democrat Gary Trauner was unsuccessful in his second attempt at Wyoming’s seat on Capitol Hill. After losing by a little more than 1,000 votes in 2006, Trauner was soundly beaten, by 53-43 percent, by former state treasurer Cynthia Lummis in the race to replace the retiring Republican, Barbara Cubin.

And in Alabama, Jewish Democrat Josh Segall ran a strong race but fell short, losing 53-47 percent to three-term incumbent Republican Mike Rogers. Segall was the rare candidate who stressed his areas of agreement with President Bush, but Rogers attacked the Democrat for being “too liberal” for the Montgomery-area district.

Meanwhile, all six Jewish freshman in the House will return to Washington in January for a second term.

Democrats Steve Kagen in Wisconsin, Paul Hodes in New Hampshire, Ron Klein in Florida, John Yarmuth in Kentucky, Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona and Steve Cohen in Tennessee all won re-election on Tuesday.

Kagen had the smallest margin of victory – about six points in a rematch of his 2006 race with Republican John Gard – while all the others won at least 55 percent of the vote. That included Giffords, whose race against Arizona Senate president Tim Bee matched the two former elementary and middle school classmates.

All other Jewish incumbents also won their races. And at least one non-Jewish House member with a lot of fans in the Jewish and pro-Israel community will return to Capitol Hill.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican representing Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, which includes Chicago’s heavily Jewish North Shore area, won 55 percent of the vote in his rematch with Democrat Dan Seals. The four-term incumbent, who supports abortion rights, is a close ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. A member of the House Foreign Affairs appropriations subcommittee, Kirk  earlier this year introduced legislation backed by AIPAC that would have punished those selling refined gasoline to Iran.

The race was one of the most expensive House campaigns in the country, with the two candidates spending $6.8 million between them.

A number of other Jewish candidates were defeated on Tuesday as they attempted to enter the House for a first term. In Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Bob Lord was seen by pundits as having a chance to knock off seven-term GOP incumbent John Shadegg in the Phoenix suburbs, but the Republican triumphed by a 54-42 margin.

In Colorado’s 6th District, Democrat Hank Eng fell short in attempting to become the first Jewish Chinese-American in Congress. He received 40 percent of the vote in his race against Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman for a seat that has been held by a Republican since it was created in 1980.

In the Miami suburbs, Democrat Annette Taddeo failed to become the first Jewish Latina in Congress. The Colombian-born businesswoman lost to Cuban-born Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a 19-year incumbent who has been a strong advocate for Israel as the ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On the other side of the aisle, four Jewish Republican longshots all lost their races against well-known incumbents. In a matchup between two Jewish women in the Philadelphia-area’s 13th Congressional District, Democrat Allyson Schwartz easily defeated Republican Marina Kats, 63 percent to 34 percent.  In New York’s 5th District, including parts of Queens and Nassau County, Republican Liz Berney received 28 percent of the vote in her race against Jewish Democrat Gary Ackerman.

Also, Republican Steve Greenberg lost by 20 points to Democrat Melissa Bean in Illinois’ 8th District, outside of Chicago, and  Nick Gerber lost to Ellen Tauscher in California’s 10th District by a 34-point margin.

Another Jewish Republican lost an open seat on Staten Island that had been in GOP hands since 1983. Former state Assemblyman Bob Straniere, unpopular with the local Republican Party establishment but the victor in a primary, was routed by Democratic City Councilman Michael McMahon, 61 percent to 33 percent. The seat came open when Vito Fosella decided to leave Congress after his arrest earlier this year on drunk driving charges and the subsequent revelation that the married congressman had a girlfriend and child living in the Washington area.

There were Jewish Democratic longshots who were defeated as well.

In New Jersey’s 4th District, Jewish Democrat and history professor Joshua Zeitz received one-third of the vote in his quest to knock off the 28-year Republican incumbent, Rep. Christopher Smith.

In California’s 45th District, which includes Palm Springs, former state Assemblywoman Julie Bornstein lost to Republican Mary Bono Mack by a 56-44 margin. And in Virginia’s 10th District, outside of Washington, health policy expert Judy Feder lost her second consecutive challenge to the 14-term incumbent Republican, Rep. Frank Wolf, in Virginia’s 10th District, garnering 38 percent of the vote compared to Wolf’s 60 percent.

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