The House elections: Doubling the Memphis contingent and other Jewish takes

Jacky Rosen speaks to campaign volunteers at the Nevada Democrats' field office in southwest Las Vegas, Oct. 18, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – California condors? I’ll show you rarities: Jewish congressmen from Memphis and Jewish Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And both demographics may be set to double in population – to two.

Seven Jews either running for open seats or challenging incumbents in Congress have a shot at winning; five in the House and two in the Senate. One Jewish Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, is retiring. If the other Jewish lawmakers keep their seats, the unofficial Jewish contingent in Congress would rise to 34 from 28 (24 in the House and 10 in the Senate).

Democrats appear likely to take the Senate. The House is a tougher challenge, but because of revelations about Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, the Democrats’ chances have improved in recent weeks.

Here’s a look at six House races with unusual Jewish repercussions.

Don’t walk alone in Memphis

Next time Marc Cohn reprises the walk in Memphis that made him a one-hit wonder in 1991, he might not feel the same pressure to declare himself a Christian, as he does at the song’s climax: Both of the city’s congressmen are likely to be Jewish.

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 30:  Steve Cohen, U.S. Representative 9th District of Tennessee speaks during the Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee on March 30, 2007.   (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Steve Cohen at the Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., March 30, 2007. (Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

David Kustoff, a former U.S. attorney, is the Republican nominee in Tennessee’s 8th District and is virtually guaranteed election next week. He will join Steve Cohen, a Democrat representing the state’s 9th District.

That’s two members of the state’s Jewish community, which is estimated at less than 30,000 and split between Nashville and the Home of the Blues, a city of about 700,000.

Apart from their religion, the two congressman won’t have much else in common. Cohen is the only white in Congress representing a black majority district (he’s tried to become a member of the Congressional Black Caucus), while Kustoff represents the wealthier — and whiter — parts of Memphis and its suburbs.

Cohen advocates demilitarizing police forces; Kustoff calls himself a law-and-order candidate. Kustoff says the No. 1 priority for the United States is “fighting terror” in the Middle East and calls the Iran nuclear deal a “threat.” Cohen was one of the first Jewish lawmakers backed by J Street, the dovish Middle East Jewish policy group that advocates greater diplomatic engagement, and also one of the first to favor the Iran deal.

Kustoff boasts of deporting illegal immigrants when he was a U.S. attorney. Cohen sponsored a bill that sought to guarantee children legal representation before being deported.

Cohen was an early backer of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, although from the start he counseled conciliation with backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who challenged Clinton from the left. Kustoff is a Trump Republican, or was until he went into radio silence after it emerged earlier this month that the party’s nominee in a 2005 video boasted of sexual assault. (Trump says he was all talk, no action.)

But hey, they can trade shots — maybe even share them — on the plane back to Memphis for the Hanukkah break.

Lee Zeldin: It’s all about the Trump

In 2009, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., lost his seat to Al Franken and the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties, leaving Eric Cantor as the sole Jewish Republican in Congress. Since then, I’ve typed that phrase — “sole Jewish Republican in Congress” – well, dozens of times.

Cantor, who rose to majority leader, was defeated by a Tea Party insurgent in the 2014 primary and promptly quit – meaning those of us on the Jewish politics beat switched for a while to “no Jewish Republicans in Congress.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016 in East Hampton, N.Y., Oct. 8, 2016. (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival)
Rep. Lee Zeldin at the Hamptons International Film Festival 2016 in East Hampton, N.Y., Oct. 8, 2016. (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival)

Lee Zeldin in New York’s 1st District, encompassing the eastern reaches of Long Island, fixed that quick smart, handily taking the seat away from Tim Bishop the same year. An Army veteran, he has become a go-to pro-Israel lawmaker and a leading voice in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

Zeldin’s was considered a swing district, and Democrats had been invested in retaking it, nominating Anna Throne-Holst, who founded an elementary school, to challenge the incumbent.

Those hopes would have appeared dashed when a Newsday/Siena College poll published on Oct. 8 showed Zeldin 15 points ahead. Except the poll was published a day after the emergence of the Trump tape and conducted in the week prior to its revelation.

Zeldin, unlike many other Jewish Republicans, had been unabashedly in the Trump camp, and that gave Throne-Holst an opening she’s been hammering.

Zeldin has called Trump’s talk on the tape “indefensible,” and Newsday quoted him as saying, “I’d rather talk about what you stand for instead of who you stand with.”

It might be too late for that: In August, before tapegate, Douglas Bloomfield, the liberal columnist syndicated in the Jewish media, called Zeldin “Trump’s Jewish mini-me.” The article quoted Zeldin’s praise for Trump, as well as echoes of Trump in Zeldin’s rhetoric and policies.

Josh Gottheimer: Iran deal skeptic aims to oust hard-core conservative 

Rep. Scott Garrett, serving the 5th District in northern New Jersey, is a deeply conservative Republican in a state famous for producing GOP moderates like incumbent Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith.

Redistricting after the 2010 census added heavily Jewish suburbs like Teaneck to the largely rural and exurban 5th, but it didn’t help: Garrett kept winning.

Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Microsoft executive, hopes to change that calculus. He has gotten help from an unexpected quarter: Garrett.

The congressman, in a closed door meeting in 2015, reportedly infuriated fellow GOP lawmakers when he said he would no longer redirect funds to assist others in the party now that it was backing openly gay candidates. (He denies that’s what he meant.) Lawmakers in safe seats are expected to share the wealth with their more vulnerable party colleagues; a refusal to do so is a recipe for isolation.

Wall Street, notably, took notice and started redirecting its financial support to Gottheimer.

Garrett has fought back hard. Garrett’s accusation making headlines is that Gottheimer assaulted another condo member in his building in Washington, D.C. (The lawsuit alleging the assault was withdrawn without settlement, and Gottheimer says the charge, which involved finger wagging, is absurd.) Gottheimer, who started out trailing substantially, was leading Garrett at the outset of October, according to a poll by a Democratic political action committee.

More pertinently to a corner of the state with a large Orthodox Jewish population – and a politically conservative one – Garrett’s campaign in a radio ad accused Gottheimer, who is Jewish, of backing the Iran nuclear deal.

In fact, Gottheimer opposed the deal, but does not advocate dismantling it now with the agreement in place. Instead he favors strict implementation, a view that has become doctrine for the minority of Democrats who last year opposed the deal.

Brad Schneider will try to win his House seat back in Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)
Brad Schneider will try to win his House seat back in Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)

Tellingly, that’s the position of three of the six other Jewish Democrats with realistic shots at election next week: Brad Schneider in Illinois, Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Jason Kander, running for the Senate from Missouri. Kustoff, the Memphis Republican, outright opposes the deal. Jamie Raskin, running for the House in Maryland, and Russ Feingold, a Senate candidate in Wisconsin, back the deal.

The election of all seven Jewish contenders would nudge an important metric – where Jewish lawmakers stand on an Israel-related issue – back toward the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Last year, 19 of the 28 Jewish lawmakers in both chambers supported the deal and nine opposed it, a balance that did not look good for AIPAC, which was unsuccessful in its bid to kill the deal in Congress and claims to speak for the American Jewish community. With the pro-deal Boxer retiring, should all seven Jews vying for Congress be elected, the balance would move to 20 Jewish lawmakers supporting the agreement and 14 who would have opposed it. Also, an anti-deal lawmaker, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will be leading the party in the Senate.

Jacky Rosen: From synagogue politics to the real thing

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the minority leader with a reputation for hardball, is retiring and as one of his legacies, he wants his state to look a little bluer.

Once Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, announced his candidacy for Reid’s Senate seat, the outgoing senator seized upon Heck’s district, the 3rd, comprising Las Vegas suburbs, as an opportunity.

Republicans were backing Danny Tarkanian, a businessman and son of the late legendary basketball coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Jerry Tarkanian. Reid wanted name recognition.

But Reid couldn’t persuade local luminaries to contest the swing seat, and he didn’t like the crop of unknowns who were vying for it. (One of the contenders, Jesse Sbaih, an attorney, said Reid rejected him because he is Arab and Muslim; Reid vehemently denied the charge.)

So he settled on Jacky Rosen, an unknown he liked. A software developer, her sole public office was president of Ner Tamid in Henderson, a Reform synagogue that is the largest shul in the region.

With Reid’s backing, she handily won the primary. Her candidacy seemed the kind of stretch that plays out on political satires like “Veep” and, well, presidential elections in 2016. She avoided hard issues, preferring buzzy words like “empowerment.” An LGBTQ group hosting a town hall for candidates printed “Jack Rosen” on her nameplate (she recovered with a quip about transgender bathrooms). She touted her synagogue’s conversion to solar energy as a qualification for office.

Democrats still hope to win the seat; both parties have released polls showing their candidate in the lead.

Brad Schneider and Bob Dold: Tag, you’re it.

In 2010, Bob Dold, a moderate Republican, succeeded Mark Kirk, another moderate Republican who ascended to the Senate, in Illinois’ 10th District comprising Chicago’s northern suburbs.

In 2012, Brad Schneider, a centrist Democrat, took the seat from Dold.

In 2014, Dold took it back from Schneider.

This year, Schneider wants to return the favor. Each party ran polls in recent weeks showing its candidate in the lead – but it’s close. As in 2012, Schneider hopes to capitalize on larger Democratic turnout in presidential election years.

Both candidates are close to the pro-Israel community. Dold has visited the country multiple times as a congressman and as a candidate, and has taken the lead on pro-Israel legislation. Schneider, who is Jewish, has been active locally and nationally with AIPAC.

Both candidates opposed the Iran nuclear deal. Schneider’s vocal opposition cost him liberal Jewish support in the primary this year, although he won that election. Schneider not only opposed the deal, he flew to Washington to attend the March 2015 speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposing the deal  – a speech that infuriated much of the Democratic caucus.

Jamie Raskin: Anti-establishment, establishment, but not an atheist

How establishment is Jamie Raskin, the Maryland state senator likely to win Maryland’s 8th District next week? This establishment: his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, is deputy secretary of the Treasury.

Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, in 2013 tells one newspaper that he is "emphatically" Jewish. (Flickr Commons)
Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, in 2013, tells one newspaper that he is “emphatically” Jewish. (Flickr Commons)

How anti-establishment is Jamie Raskin? This anti-establishment: He has the endorsement of Our Revolution, the movement established by Sanders in the wake of his candidacy, and of J Street, the liberal Middle East policy group.

How surprising is this? Not so. Maryland’s suburbs of Washington covered by the 8th are a liberal enclave: Of the nine candidates who vied in the Democratic primary, three were endorsed by J Street. None had the backing of more centrist pro-Israel groups, although one, David Trone, a wine magnate, deeply annoyed the Anti-Defamation League by making it appear as if he had the group’s endorsement.

How atheist is Raskin? He’s not, although an atheist political action committee, the Freethought Equality Fund, claimedhim as one of their own and said he would be the first “nontheist” in Congress.

Raskin, telling The Washington Post that he is “emphatically” Jewish – he attends Temple Sinai in the District – said the PAC apparently confused his embrace of “small h” humanism with the capital H movement.