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Behind the Headlines It’s Jew Vs. Jew in Minnesota, in Close Race for U.S. Senate Seat

October 18, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Minnesota voters are poised once again to elect a Jew to the U.S. Senate — though it’s not clear if it will be Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone or his Republican challenger, Norm Coleman.Both candidates have strong backers in the state’s 45,000-strong Jewish community.

With Democrats struggling to maintain their narrow control of the Senate, every race is under heightened scrutiny. The Minnesota race has been deemed “neck and neck” for weeks now. Wellstone’s seat is seen as vulnerable, leading Republican Jews to open their pocketbooks to Coleman. Fundraisers in St. Louis, Dallas and Los Angeles have raised $300,000 for Coleman, according to Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

On the other side of the aisle, the National Jewish Democratic Council PAC sent a mailing to supporters highlighting the Wellstone race and encouraging contributions to the senator’s campaign.

Also, the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a Jewish group that advocates abortion rights and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, lists Wellstone on its “most endangered incumbents” list and encourages contributions to support him. JACPAC has given $6,000 to Wellstone’s campaign since last year.

Unlike some other high-profile races that have galvanized Jewish attention this year, Jewish voters in Minnesota don’t have to mobilize against an anti-Israel candidate or focus on a single overarching issue where a candidate’s position could determine their vote.

Instead, the candidates are quite distinct — a conservative who is pro-life and for action in Iraq; a liberal who is pro-choice and against unilateral action in Iraq — and it’s unclear how Jewish voters will weigh all the factors.

“The big question is what are the swing issues going to be for Jewish voters,” said Steve Silverfarb, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Among the issues affecting Jewish voters’ decisions are national security, the economy and education, Silverfarb says.

The two candidates’ positions on Iraq are a microcosm of the divisions in the American Jewish community, but it’s not clear how much the Iraq issue will sway Jewish voters.

Coleman strongly supports the resolution passed last week by Congress authorizing President Bush “to execute the U.N.’s mission to disarm Iraq.”

The resolution will not give the president a “blank check” for unilateral action, he argues, but the goal of U.S. policy must be Iraqi disarmament.

Wellstone has not said he would oppose military action against Iraq in every circumstance, but he does not want the United States to act alone.

“We should act forcefully, resolutely, sensibly — with our allies, and not alone — to disarm Saddam,” Wellstone said. “Authorizing the pre-emptive, go-it-alone use of force now, right in the midst of continuing efforts to enlist the world community to back a tough new disarmament resolution on Iraq, could be a costly mistake for our country.”

Wellstone said he supports stripping Saddam of weapons of mass destruction, and urged the prompt resumption of U.N. weapons inspections with unfettered access and an expedited timetable. He joined 22 other senators in voting against the Oct. 10 resolution authorizing Bush to use force if necessary.

Coleman says Wellstone’s vote is typical of his opposition to defense spending, which Coleman says places him “out of the mainstream.”

Wellstone opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but did vote for the most recent defense authorization bill and has supported several pieces of anti-terrorism legislation. In most cases, however, he voted against increases in defense spending.

Despite Wellstone’s anti-war stance, the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national political action committee endorsed him.

The Republican Jewish Committee says national security and the Iraqi threat are the main issues that will persuade Jews to vote for Coleman. The consensus in the Jewish community is to act against Iraq, placing Wellstone “on the fringe,” Brooks said.

In contrast, Democratic strategists argue that domestic issues, not Iraq, will decide the election. As a pro-choice liberal, Wellstone may be closer to the Jewish community than Coleman on domestic issues.

Experts caution that Jewish voting patterns in Minnesota are hard to gauge for a variety of factors: there are relatively few Jews there, polls do not sample Jewish voters specifically and the state typically has a strong third-party presence.

Wellstone’s performance in the Jewish community may also depend on how seriously some people take the charges that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel.

In recent letters to the editor of the American Jewish World, the Minneapolis Jewish paper, some touted Wellstone as a staunch friend of Israel while others criticized him as too sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Wellstone’s voting record shows consistent support for foreign aid to Israel. He also signed or co-sponsored various congressional letters in support of Israel.

“Wellstone has tremendous support in the Jewish community,” said Jim Farrell, a spokesman for the Wellstone campaign. Farrell cited letters to President Bush criticizing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Wellstone’s support for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But Wellstone didn’t sign on to a number of other letters and resolutions, including a 1998 letter that urged President Clinton to stop publicly pressuring Israel to make concessions and that criticized Yasser Arafat for violating the Oslo peace accords.

Morris Amitay, a pro-Israel activist and founder of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel group, says Wellstone has a “poor record” on Israel.

Washington PAC gave $2,000 to Coleman, who has what Amitay called a strong position paper on Israel.

“I have every reason to believe that Coleman would be better” on Israel, Amitay said.

But one Jewish official says the community is not sure of how to proceed on the Iraq issue and that, in any case, American Jews are not single-issue voters.

Two Minnesotans who spoke to JTA appear to reflect the divisions on the race within the Jewish community.

Businessman Bill Aberman, a Wellstone supporter, told JTA that both candidates would be strong supporters of Israel. He also thinks that people distort Wellstone’s stance on Iraq — portraying him as more extreme than he is — and that, in any case, the Jewish community wants to move slowly on the Iraq issue.

Attorney Andrew Parker, a Coleman supporter, says Wellstone sees a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli military retaliation and that Wellstone has not been good for the Jewish community.

In addition, he believes Wellstone is on the wrong side of the Iraq debate, Parker said.

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