In a turbulent midterm election campaign that could culminate with a major political realignment in the U.S. Congress, candidates are constant at least with one constituency: Jewish voters. In their campaigns for the Jewish vote on Nov. 7, Republicans are pitching support for Israel and anti-terrorism, as they have for years. Democrats are reminding voters of the party’s traditional support for Israel but are emphasizing health care, keeping church separate from state and supporting reproductive rights, as they have for years.
What’s different is the intensity of the outreach, with major ad buys in Jewish media and innovative grass-roots efforts, a consequence of a fevered campaign that could see the Republican majority ousted in one or both houses of Congress.
In six tight races for the U.S. Senate and in 25 to 30 tight races for the U.S. House of Representatives, swaying just a few hundred votes could be the margin for victory.
Losing one house could significantly alter the Washington agenda and bog down President Bush’s final two years in office in defenses of how he handled the Iraq war, national security, civil liberties and last year’s hurricane season.
“This is going to be a nail-biter election,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“They’re looking everywhere they can to pick up votes here and there,” he said of his party.
One measure of the seriousness of the Republican outreach has been the RJC’s massive advertising campaign in Jewish media. The ads allege that support for Israel has eroded among rank-and-file Democrats.
The National Jewish Democratic Council has responded with ads that say the RJC campaign undermines support for Israel.
Unlike the RJC’s national campaign, however, the NJDC is targeting specific competitive races.
Ira Forman, the NJDC executive director, identified ad buys this week in New Jersey, where Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, faces a strong challenge from Tom Kean; and in Missouri, where state auditor Claire McCaskill threatens Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican.
That reflects the overall Jewish Democratic effort, which is focusing money where it is most needed and getting out the vote in races Democrats think they can win.
In contrast, Brooks says the RJC ads are less about individual races and are aimed more at what has long been the RJC’s overreaching goal: expanding Jewish membership in a party that Jews have traditionally rejected 3-to-1.
“There’s a competitive political environment going on, and we’re using that opportunity to help educate the Jewish community; it’s fertile ground to convey our message, raise our profile and sign new members,” he said. “It’s why we’re also doing out stuff where there aren’t competitive races.”
He cited for example his ad buys in California and New York, where urban voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
Observers say the frequency of the ads — a new one appears virtually every week — is unprecedented, and the RJC is showing no sign of relenting.
An RJC pitch to its members last week for funds to place more ads gleefully noted “what Democrats are saying about our ads: ‘obnoxious,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘shameful,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘offensive,’ ‘misleading.’ “
That doesn’t mean Republicans have given up on Jewish votes in competitive races this session, Brooks said; but whereas the ads look to the long term, the short-term strategy relies more on grass-roots outreach.
Jewish Republicans like Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman, have made Jewish appearances throughout New Jersey to support Kean.
On Tuesday, Ken Mehlman, the Jewish national party chairman, stumped among Jews in West Palm Beach for Joe Negron, the Republican running to replace U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), forced to quit what was once a safe Republican seat after revelations of his sexual overtures to minors.
Another indicator of Republican outreach is a weekly conference call organized by Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox conservative political activist. Geared toward like-minded activists, the callers discuss which races and political issues deserve funding, assistance or increased attention.
“The purpose is not so much to debate and pick brains, as much as networking and seeking assistance and information,” Ballabon said. The calls are modeled after weekly meetings conservative Republican officials hold in Washington, organized by Grover Norquist, credited in part for catapulting the Republicans to power in the mid-1990s.
The conference calls alleviate the sense of minority status some Jewish conservatives feel in their communities, he said. “It’s connecting people who really didn’t know each other before.”
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), in a tight re-election race with opponent Bob Casey, has joined some of the calls, as has former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, considered a possible presidential candidate in 2008. White House and congressional aides also often join in.
The National Jewish Democratic Council has been on the phone as well, orchestrating calls to get key candidates talking to Jewish, local and national media about Jewish issues.
Candidates like New Jersey’s Menendez and Tim Mahoney, who is seeking the Florida House seat formerly held by Foley, talk about more than just Israel. They seek to reach out to Jewish voters on issues like abortion, stem cells and the separation of church and state.
That contrasts with the party’s national campaign, which tends to focus on areas Democrats tended to cede to Republicans in 2002 and 2004: Iraq and national security. With Bush scoring low on both issues now, Democrats are seizing on those issues.
Among the Jews, however, domestic policies are the natural emphasis for Democrats, said Matt Dorf, a Democratic strategist.
“The message is that Jewish Democrats do not have to compromise their values to vote,” he said. “They trust Democrats on Israel and on national security, and they don’t have to compromise their values on the environment, health care, reproductive freedom, church-state and stem cells.”
That doesn’t mean Democrats are ceding ground on national security and foreign policy when they reach out to Jews, Dorf said. In the conference calls, virtually every Democratic candidate says that by miring the United States in Iraq, Bush has empowered Iran, Israel’s deadliest enemy.
“Israel and the United States are less safe than they were six years ago,” Dorf said.
Republicans counter that the Democratic Party’s grass roots appear to be sliding away from Israel, according to national polls that show majorities of Republicans favoring Israel and pluralities among Democrats expressing neutral views about the Middle East.
Democrats call it a scare tactic that could undermine bipartisan support for Israel, but Brooks says he’s just the messenger.
“We’re illuminating a real problem within the Democratic Party,” he said, arguing that the “progressive, radical left” has become the party’s mainstream.
Bush’s unstinting support for Israel in this summer’s war with Hezbollah on the Lebanese border created an opportunity to highlight differences, Brooks said.
“People intellectually understand we’re all in the same boat, we face the same threats from fascists,” he said.
(Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief; Matthew E. Berger is a correspondent for Congressional Quarterly.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.