National | News

Midterm elections: Jews facing off and other close races to watch

Andrew Romanoff
Andrew Romanoff

(JTA) — With midterm elections just around the corner, four races for the House of Representatives in particular are catching our Jewish eyes.

In California, succeeding Waxman: Ted Lieu vs. Elan Carr

California’s 33rd Congressional District, stretching along the Pacific Coast and extending into the west side of Los Angeles, is one of the wealthiest districts in Congress and encompasses some of the most glamorous real estate in the country: Malibu, Beverly Hills, Bel Air. When incumbent liberal stalwart Rep. Henry Waxman announced his retirement, the 18-candidate primary for the seat turned into a national punchline, attracting a Kardashian-endorsed spiritual guru, an NPR host and a hard-partying former NBC executive.

But as befits the successor to Waxman, a legislative workhorse, the two candidates who emerged — State Sen. Ted Lieu, a 45-year-old Democrat, and Los Angeles deputy district attorney Elan Carr, a 46-year-old Republican — are decidedly low-key figures who share a number of similarities. Both are serving members of the military’s JAG corps (Lieu for the Air Force, Carr for the Army), both belonged to Jewish-founded fraternities (Lieu to Sigma Alpha Mu, Carr to Alpha Epsilon Pi), and both are pitching themselves as relative moderates – socially liberal, pro-Israel and business friendly.

Carr’s mother emigrated as a child from Iraq to Israel and subsequently to the United States. Carr himself grew up in New York speaking Hebrew and Arabic with his family, and he put the latter skill to use when he served in an anti-terrorism unit in Iraq. He argues that his Iraq experiences will serve him well as a “shaper of opinion” on foreign policy, and particularly on Iran and Israel – key issues in the seventh-most Jewish district in the country.

Carr’s interest in Israel, in particular, is something he shares with supporter Sheldon Adelson, whom the candidate describes as a “close personal friend.” Adelson has donated to the Carr campaign and hosted a fundraiser for him.
Lieu is an immigrant himself, having arrived in the United States from Taiwan at age 3 with his parents. He has authored bills on everything from greenhouse gas reductions to indoor tanning salons, and he touts his legislative experience as one of his strengths.

Voters, Lieu says, are “very aware that they’re losing a phenomenal legislator” in Waxman, who has endorsed Lieu. “With me, you have a track record.”

Registered Democrats in the district substantially outnumber Republicans, 43.4 percent to 26.8 percent. Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of California State University, Los Angeles’ Pat Brown Institute — a nonpartisan public policy institute — says that Carr has the right profile for a Republican to be successful here, but given the partisan tilt of the district, he is “a substantial underdog.”

In New York, eyeing a new Republican Jew in Congress: Lee Zeldin vs. Tim Bishop
State Sen. Lee Zeldin is adding a new pitch in his second bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop in New York’s 1st Congressional District: Congress needs a Jewish Republican.

Zeldin’s religion, and its scarcity among Republican politicos, is by no means his main focus. Local bread-and-butter issues and the economy have dominated the campaign of this 34-year-old Iraq War vet who has served in the state Senate for four years.

But replacing former Rep. Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, as the only Republican Jewish lawmaker in the Congress has been part of Zeldin’s outreach both in his eastern Long Island district and in making his case to donors nationally.

Zeldin, who met with Cantor after Cantor resigned following his primary loss in Virginia in June, called the former majority leader an “important voice in reaching out to the Jewish community here in the United States to encourage them to be more open-minded toward supporting Republican candidates.”

Top conservative Jewish figures, including National Review publisher Bill Kristol, former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer and Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks, have traveled to New York to help make Zeldin’s case.

Bishop, who acknowledges facing a tough challenge from Zeldin, told JTA that he did not think Zeldin’s religion would be a factor in the vote.

“My understanding is now that Eric Cantor has left the Congress, he is telling others he will fill that void,” Bishop said in an interview. “This is not a race about electing someone Jewish.”

Bishop noted that both he and his opponent have strong pro-Israel voting records.

“One thing we are almost unanimous on is the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and that our posture towards Israel will be protective,” Bishop said.

This is the fourth time Bishop has faced a Jewish challenger. He defeated Zeldin in 2008, and in 2010 and 2012 he edged Randy Altschuler, an investment banker.

Bishop says he is a more natural fit for Jewish voters, who tend to vote Democratic and hold liberal positions on such issues as immigration, health care and education reform.

On each of those issues, Zeldin and Bishop stake out opposing views. Bishop favors a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants; Zeldin says securing the borders must be a primary priority. Zeldin wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, while preserving elements like mandating coverage for people with pre-existing conditions; Bishop wants to keep it but tweak it. Zeldin wants to toss out the federal Common Core standards for schools; Bishop wants to reform them.

Bishop says he backs continued congressional oversight of any Iran deal. Zeldin says Congress needs more aggressive oversight of the nuclear talks.

“We need to be much stronger and more consistent with our messaging to actually stop Iran’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Zeldin told JTA, calling for increased sanctions.

Ben Chouake, the president of NORPAC, the pre-eminent pro-Israel political action committee in the Northeast, said pro-Israel donors are not focusing on the Zeldin-Bishop race because they are not so impressed with Bishop and Zeldin has been slipping in the polls.

“It’s OK to have a good voting record on our issues if you’re from Anchorage, but if you’re from Long Island, people expect more of you than a voting record,” Chouake said. “They expect leadership.”

In Colorado, tight race in a changing state: Mike Coffman vs. Andrew Romanoff
Colorado has spent the past two years in political upheaval, and perhaps no district embodies its contradictions better than the 6th Congressional District. The site of the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, the 6th wraps around the east side of Denver, encompassing upscale suburbs, multiracial working-class communities and old-line conservative Colorado natives.

The two candidates — Rep. Mike Coffman, a 59-year-old Republican, and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a 48-year-old Democrat — embody that split nature perfectly.

Coffman is a Coloradan since childhood and a former Marine who has represented the district since 2008. His maternal grandfather was an Iraqi Jew who moved to the French concession in Shanghai, where his mother grew up until she met his father, a U.S. soldier doing demilitarization in the area at the end of World War II.

Long a conservative, Coffman has been forced to moderate his rhetoric since redistricting turned the 6th from a conservative redoubt into a swing district.

Coffman has worked to paint the Washington-born, Ohio-raised Romanoff as a snooty outsider, sneering in a September debate, “You went to a private prep school, Harvard, Yale.” A former Wexner fellow, Romanoff presents his career in public service and education — ranging from teaching at the Community College of Aurora to working at the Southern Poverty Law Center to serving in the statehouse — as springing from his Jewish upbringing.

“I think it’s shaped who I am in almost every way,” he told JTA. “I take seriously the obligation we call tikkun olam.”

Romanoff and Coffman have focused heavily on domestic issues, particularly economic. Romanoff has also played up his refusal to take money from political action committees, or PACs, as freeing him from special interests. It certainly hasn’t prevented Romanoff from bringing in the big money, as both candidates had raised well over $3 million by the end of the second quarter. However, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced recently that it was cutting off its television advertising in the district — a move that some analysts took as a sign that Romanoff’s chances might be slipping. Nonetheless, the result will likely remain in doubt to the very end.

“It’s obviously a very close race,” said Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. “Coffman probably maintains a very slight lead, but both are very strong candidates.”

Masket says Romanoff may be saved, ironically, by the difficulties of his fellow Colorado Democrats running for re-election as senator and governor. Their close races have caused the state and national parties to pour millions into voter turnout efforts across the state, which might mitigate the greater tendency of Democratic voters to ignore non-presidential elections.

That could be a godsend for Romanoff. Asked what would make the ultimate difference in the election, Romanoff bluntly responded, “Turnout.”

In Illinois, who’s the favorite in Chicago? Brad Schneider vs. Robert Dold
Brad Schneider and Robert Dold, locked in a neck-and-neck race for a Chicago-area congressional seat, present a dilemma for some Jewish voters.

Dold, 45, is a Republican social moderate in the tradition of now-Sen. Mark Kirk, his predecessor in the 10th Congressional District. Dold, who held the seat for one two-year term before losing narrowly to Schneider in 2012, represents what many Jewish community leaders have said they long to see: a pro-Israel hawk who strives to keep a national party that has tilted rightward since 2010 on a more even keel.

Schneider, the 53-year-old incumbent, represents a prototype Jewish Democrats want to preserve: a young, liberal Jewish lawmaker who makes Israel a central focus and casts it as a natural issue for Democrats.

Jewish voters “are looking for a fiscal conservative and social moderate, someone who can be in the tradition of Mark Kirk,” Dold said in an interview. “People are tired of excuses and they want Washington to work. I have a track record of working with the other side.”

Schneider, almost echoing Dold, pitched himself in an interview as a “fiscally moderate, socially progressive” candidate, and in making his case slips into the Hebrew he learned on multiple visits to Israel.

“Two things I talk about is tikkun olam,” he said, using the phrase for repairing the world, and “l’dor v’dor,” from generation to generation. “We can’t leave an environment beyond repair.”

On issues like the Affordable Care Act and Israel, the candidates sound similar notes: Each favors tweaks to Obamacare but not repeal, and each says he will stand up to the administration if it gives too much away in nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers.

The candidates, digging deep into their opponent’s record, score each other on these issues.

Dold says “there’s no question” that Schneider is pro-Israel, but chides him for not speaking out more against the administration — for instance, when Secretary of State John Kerry warned earlier this year that Israel one day could become an apartheid state.

Schneider notes that this year he initiated a bipartisan letter pressing the administration to increase Iran sanctions at a time when it was resisting such calls. He also points out that Dold voted to repeal Obamacare during his term in Congress; Dold says he now favors bipartisan fixes for Obamacare.

Jewish officials say Schneider has the edge in part because, with a background as an activist with the American Jewish Committee and with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he is so steeped in the community.

“You couldn’t ask for a better friend to Israel,” said Marcia Balonick, the director of JACPAC, a political action committee with a focus on Israel, abortion rights and church-state separation. “In his former life he was an active member of the Jewish community, he speaks fluent Hebrew, he’s already taken several missions to Israel.”

JACPAC in the past has sought out moderate Republicans to endorse, including Kirk, in part to help preserve that wing of the party. Dold has told the group that he would resist attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion, but will not vote for funding for abortions for poor women, which is a non-starter.

NORPAC, a leading New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee, endorsed Schneider under the “friendly incumbent” rule for pro-Israel givers: Do not alienate the lawmaker in office.