Anything could happen in congressional midterm elections this November, and several prominent Jewish candidates are in the mix. President Bush’s sagging popularity numbers have raised the possibility that Democrats could take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives. For that to happen, analysts say, two Jewish Democratic candidates likely will have to win traditionally Republican seats.
One challenger, Ron Klein, is taking on a 13-term incumbent in Florida’s 22nd district. The other, Gabrielle Giffords, hopes to replace Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a key pro-Israel member of the House Appropriations Committee who announced his retirement earlier this year.
“In 1994, when Republicans swept into the House, they knocked off a huge number of Democratic Jews,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “For us to come back, we’ve got to win Jewish Democratic seats like these.”
Indeed, after the 1990 midterm elections, 34 Jews were elected to serve in the House. Two years later, that number had fallen to 29. When the Republicans took over the House after 1994 balloting, just 24 Jews were elected.
Currently, 26 Jews are serving in the House of Representatives, and 11 in the Senate. All but two in each house are Democrats.
Both Klein and Giffords have been reaching out to the Jewish community, in their districts and nationwide.
“These are serious candidates,” Forman said.
Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said talk of Democrats winning Congress was “premature.”
“I am confident Republicans will maintain control of both the House and the Senate,” he said.
Republicans currently hold 232 seats in the House, while Democrats have 203, including Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
The Democrats need 218 seats, which means a change in 15 districts, to become the majority.
Gabrielle Giffords thinks there’s something about Jewish women that makes them ideal lawmakers.
“Jewish women have this attitude that is much more inclusive and takes everyone in,” she said recently. “Often when we need to get a difficult problem solved, Jewish women have been the right ones to turn to.”
Giffords watched as two new Jewish women joined the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004, bringing the total in Congress to nine. She wants to be the 10th, hoping to fill the spot left open in Arizona’s 8th district by the sudden retirement of Rep. Jim Kolbe (R).
The 35-year-old state senator is in a tight Democratic primary to succeed Kolbe. Her main opponent, former local news anchor Patty Weiss, is better known, but Giffords has been proficient in raising money.
“There’s a lot of optimism about her and her abilities to win that seat, it’s a natural swing district,” said Chuck Todd, editor of National Journal’s Hotline, a daily political newsletter.
Giffords was all smiles as she greeted potential donors at a cocktail reception during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in early March. She said in a recent interview that she reconnected with her Judaism in 2001, when she traveled to Israel as a participant on the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange.
“I just felt this immediate bond,” she said. “I realized I really had to work to strengthen my commitment for Judaism and for Israel.”
Giffords was born to intermarried parents in Tucson, and said the exposure to multiple religious beliefs and cultures gave her an appreciation for diversity. She said her Jewish grandparents instilled in her the values of tolerance and respect.
She attends a Reform synagogue in Tucson, and said she identifies as Jewish.
In a short political career, Giffords has traveled the world. She met her boyfriend, astronaut Mark Kelly, when they toured China last year as young leadership fellows for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Kelly is expected to pilot the next space shuttle mission later this year.
Giffords was a Fulbright scholar in Mexico in the early 1990s and participated in fellowships in Germany and Belgium in 2004.
She said the United States missed an important opportunity after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to form partnerships around the world, and said she remains concerned about a lack of American leadership in education and business.
The United States used to be motivated by the Cold War to accelerate technology research and education, she said, citing the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
“I believe the United States has fallen behind in that innovation system,” she said. “We have lost our edge.”
Giffords’ view on foreign affairs are noteworthy, especially since she is running to replace Kolbe, the current chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, the body responsible for delivering foreign aid to Israel and around the world. It’s unclear whether Giffords would replace Kolbe on that panel.
“Obviously, Kolbe was an appropriations cardinal,” she said. “I don’t think he began as a strong supporter of Israel. It became clear to him the importance of it.”
Giffords describes herself as a strong supporter of foreign aid, but said she opposes money going to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
“When it comes to the situation for example in Palestine, I don’t believe that we can back a government that talks about the elimination of the Israeli people or even the elimination of the United States,” she said. “That’s not just in Palestine, but also in Iran.”
She said that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should continue to receive humanitarian aid from the United States, however.
Giffords highlights her membership in the local ACLU, and said she is concerned about prayer in schools and the public domain.
“Having served in the legislature, I know what it’s like to have a daily prayer that is often offensive to not just legislators but constituents,” she said.
Democrats view Kolbe’s seat as primed for pickup this November. The district voted for Bush in 2004 and Republicans have a 40 percent to 35 percent advantage in party registration, but the current political climate suggests a small potential advantage for Democrats, according to political analysts.
Kolbe was known as a moderate legislator, and the Republicans may nominate someone too conservative for the district, Todd said.
Giffords herself first registered as a Republican, but switched parties when she began to run for office.
But Todd said Arizona has not proven to be moving toward the Democrats, the way other states have in the past year.
“The issue of immigration is so dominating the atmosphere in Arizona,” he said. “We’ve yet to see a Democrat win where immigration is a dominating issue.”
Giffords has been criticized by Republicans for opposing tough immigration restrictions and border security measures while serving in the state legislature.
Now she’s making illegal immigration and border security key aspects of her campaign. But she said she remains concerned about the erosion of civil liberties under the guise of counter-terrorism.
“The government needs to look out for all people,” she said. “I’m fearful when it comes to infringing liberties on people; it’s oftentimes a slippery slope.”
As a state legislator, Giffords worked to extend the statute of limitations on benefits to the more-than 500 Holocaust survivors living in Arizona.
“One of the challenges for me is to make sure that while they are still alive, their stories get out and reach kids,” she said.
Her House campaign has won some key endorsements, most recently from former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Giffords raised $247,637 in the final quarter of 2005, according to the Federal Elections Committee. Weiss did not file an FEC report at the end of the year.
The most likely Republican candidate, Randy Graf, raised a little more than $40,000.
A Lake, Snell, Perry poll conducted in January found Giffords and Graf tied with 34 percent of the primary vote each, with 32 percent choosing other candidates or undecided. The poll has a 5.2 percent margin of error.
The Democratic primary is Sept. 12. Giffords said she’s confident the Democratic Party can win the seat.
“I believe our country is facing some of the most difficult times we’ve faced in our history,” she said. “It is incumbent on all of us to step up and take action.”
Ron Klein has been the underdog before: Running for the Florida state legislature in 1992 — his first run for office — the Boca Raton Democrat relied on friends in the local Jewish federation to help him defeat a 10-year incumbent. Now he’s running for Congress, taking on a man who has been in the job for 26 years. But Klein says he’s ready for the challenge.
“I think right now people are anxious for a change,” said Klein, 47, who has been a state senator since 1996. “But you have to offer a change that is consistent with their vision.”
While most challengers are given little chance, Klein’s race against Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida’s 22nd district has garnered national attention. A senior member on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, Shaw has come close to losing his seat before — and in the current political environment, a strong Democratic challenger like Klein is getting national party support to unseat him.
Shaw’s seat has been cited as the third most vulnerable in Congress this year by National Journal.
Shaw “represents the most Democratic district in the state that is still represented by a Republican,” said Chuck Todd, editor of National Journal’s Hotline, a daily political newsletter. “They have their best candidate they’ve ever had against Clay Shaw in Klein.”
Klein traveled to Washington earlier this month to raise funds for his congressional campaign. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Democratic whip in the House, held a fund raiser for him, a strong signal of Klein’s political viability.
Officials in Klein’s campaign said they hoped the one-day trip would yield $30,000 in new funds.
The grandson of immigrants who fled the Nazis, Klein counts reforming Florida’s Holocaust education program as one of his crowning achievements.
“Growing up in Cleveland, I remember my high school textbook,” he said. “It said 6 million Jews were killed, but gave no context. Florida had the same thing.”
Klein worked with director Steven Spielberg in 1994 to show “Schindler’s List” to political leaders in Tallahassee, the state capital. When the legislation stalled in committee, Spielberg agreed to call legislators to push for Klein’s bill.
It passed on the last day of the state’s legislative session, which coincidentally was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Klein said he has received support from Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), whom Klein replaced in the state senate when Wexler was elected to Washington.
Klein got his start as an intern for the Ohio General Assembly while still in college. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1979 and received his law degree from Case Western University three years later.
He moved to Florida in 1985 and soon became involved in the Boca Raton Jewish Federation, serving as chairman of the Young Leadership Division.
Klein is a partner in a law practice, specializing in health care, business and real estate matters. He and his wife, Dori, have two children — Brian, 19, a junior at the University of Michigan, and Lauren, 17, a high school junior.
Bill Gralnick, southeast regional director for the American Jewish Committee, said Klein has been focused on constituent services in Tallahassee, and has been active in fighting school voucher programs and prayer in the schools.
“Ron’s style is steady as she goes, a student of the legislative process and somebody who uses his reputation of tremendous respect on both sides of the aisle to move an agenda,” Gralnick said.
Klein said his congressional campaign focuses on health care and retirement issues, including Social Security and pension security. That’s not surprising, considering that his district is home to numerous senior villages, including several Jewish communities.
Many pensioners who move to Florida “come to Century Village, they age, and they have a tremendous amount of needs,” he said.
He and his father had trouble figuring out the new Medicare prescription drug benefits, something many seniors are struggling with, said Klein, who accused the Republican Congress of becoming a “rubber stamp” for poorly developed plans to help seniors.
“I think the leadership in Washington is not addressing these problems in a way that will give long-term stability and support,” he said, accusing Shaw and other lawmakers of being more focused on political “battling” than on results.
Shaw has received strong support for the race against Klein. Vice President Dick Cheney campaigned for him in Boca Raton earlier this month.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, said Shaw’s power and success in the House will appeal to voters, and said Klein was focusing on the past by talking about the prescription drug issue.
“We’ve got real issues, like Iraq policy, and he’s pandering to seniors,” Dinerstein said.
Shaw is being supported by the Republican Jewish Coalition’s political action committee.
Klein said he has a commitment to Israel that comes from his “heart and soul,” and hopes that a seat in Congress also will allow him a role in Middle East policymaking.
“I recognize that, in this moment in history, the United States is very supportive of Israel,” he said. “But as members of the Jewish community, we understand history very well and we can never be complacent.”
Klein admits that if he wins in November, it would be partly due to a changing national mood. With Bush’s poll numbers at an all-time low, Democrats feel they have the potential to win seats in the House, including some against incumbents. He said he has been driving his campaign team “nuts” by his campaigning, which includes house-to-house visits with potential constituents.
Klein’s constant theme is change.
“People are hungry for leadership right now,” he said. “They feel government has let them down, and they feel like they are getting behind.”
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.