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Jewish Journal

Endangered Species

November 12, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Pity the poor Jewish Republicans. This was supposed to be their year, the election that was sure to put them on the map at last as a serious force, both in the Republican Party and in the Jewish community. Instead, it put them on the endangered species list.

On Capitol Hill, their ranks, if that's the right word, were slashed from three to just two -- one each in the House and Senate. Nationwide, their expensive plan to help Republican candidates pick up Jewish votes, by coaching them to stand firm on Israel, went down in flames. Even Florida's governor-elect, Jeb Bush, who actively courted the state's huge Jewish community for years and expected to benefit hugely in Jewish votes, appears to have won less than 25 percent.

Overall, Republicans got just 21 percent of the Jewish vote in congressional races, their smallest share since 1982. In state races around the country, every Jewish Republican who was poised to enter high office went down to defeat. In Hawaii, Maui Mayor Linda Lingle dropped an early lead in her gubernatorial bid and lost to Democratic incumbent Ben Cayetano by a heartbreaking 5,200 votes. In the Minnesota governor's race, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman enjoyed a late surge in the polls, only to be felled by a vicious body-slam from former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura of Ross Perot's Reform Party.

Jewish Democrats, on the other hand, did better than ever. There are now 10 of them in the Senate, more than a fifth of the upper house's 45 Democrats. There are so many, we'll soon be watching them for internal factions. The big mystery: whether newcomer Charles Schumer will side with fellow Mideast hawk Joe Lieberman, or join up with doves Carl Levin and Frank Lautenberg. It's a big tent.

In the House, Jewish Democrats' numbers held steady at 21, but with a twist: Three of them will be women next January, the most ever. Together with the two Jewish women in the Senate, they could constitute a sort of congressional Jewish women's caucus, a first. If this was anybody's year, it was Democratic Jewish women.

"I think it's wonderful," says Rep.-elect Shelly Berkley of Las Vegas, an attorney long active in AIPAC and the local Jewish federation. "There's strength in numbers. The more of us that are elected, the better off we are."

Joining Berkley will be fellow freshman Janice Schakowsky of Chicago, a state legislator, and four-term House veteran Rep. Nita Lowey of New York. All three say they're looking forward to working together.

"I know they'll be concerned with a whole range of issues that matter to Jewish families," says Lowey, the senior member of the group. "If you look at the role of Jews in the House, we've been leaders on the right to choose, improving education, cleaning up the environment, separation of church and state. These are issues that women, and especially Jewish women, cut our teeth on."

Jewish lobbyists and community leaders in Washington and New York are greeting the Democratic triumph with mixed feelings. Many are Democrats themselves. But they have to lobby for Jewish causes in a Congress that's still Republican-run. Having a few more Jewish Republicans to talk to would have been nice. Having friends of any sort is crucial.

In the eyes of some lobbyists, the main story in this election was the Jews' failure to stand by their friends. Case number one: Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York.

D'Amato made Jewish voters a centerpiece of his re-election effort, justifiably. He had probably done more than any Republican over the years for Jewish causes, from defending settlements to sponsoring the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Last year, he staged the dramatic Banking Committee hearings on Holocaust restitution. During the campaign, community leaders signaled by every possible nod and wink that D'Amato had earned Jewish gratitude.

Instead, Jews abandoned D'Amato in droves. By more than 3-to-1, they backed Democratic challenger Schumer.

An 18-year House veteran from Brooklyn, Schumer has a record on Israel that's nearly as strong as D'Amato's. And, unlike D'Amato, Schumer also had a record on domestic issues that pleased Jews. He sponsored the Brady Law, the assault weapons ban and the abortion clinic access law. D'Amato regularly voted with the gun lobby and the pro-life lobby. On Election Day, D'Amato got just 22 percent of the Jewish vote.

Pundits blamed the loss on D'Amato's penchant for ethnic slurs, including, bizarrely, a Yiddish curse he hurled at Schumer. Republicans grumbled that D'Amato's loss proved it was futile to befriend Jews, since Jews just don't vote Republican. Given a choice, they said, Jews vote for other Jews.

The reality is more complicated. The same Jews who gave D'Amato 22 percent of their votes this year gave 38 percent to his running mate, Republican Gov. George Pataki. Pataki won.

D'Amato himself polled more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote back in 1992, enough to win that election. Then, too, he was running against a Jew.

In California this year, Republican senatorial candidate Matt Fong got 27 percent of the Jewish vote, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, in his unsuccessful race against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. But GOP gubernatorial hopeful Dan Lungren got just 18 percent in his race against Democrat Gray Davis. Boxer, who is Jewish, did worse among Jews than Davis, who is not.

The difference is ideology. Lungren was seen as more ideologically conservative than Fong. And Boxer, though Jewish, was seen as more ideologically liberal than Davis. Today's Jews, it seems, shun extremes.

That same principle operated in the D'Amato race. Back in 1992, D'Amato was the most pro-Israel member of the Senate's Republican minority. Grateful Jews gave him a big chunk of votes. But by 1998, a strongly ideological Republican majority was running Congress. Jews were frightened and angered at the way they did business.

Nearly every congressional Republican suffered for it. The only exceptions were those, such as Arlen Specter, who have stood up and defied the Christian right over the years. That's the only way Jewish Republicans can hope to regain the confidence of their community.

Incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston can help. A longtime friend of Israel on the House Appropriations Committee, he's promised to stake out a middle ground and end four years of partisan warfare. That's the best hope for Jews, Republican and Democrat alike.

"The Jewish community has successfully worked in a bipartisan fashion on issues that affect Israel for years," says Democratic freshman Schakowsky. "But there are Republicans and there are Republicans. If the right, which wants to blur the lines between church and state, turns out to be triumphant, that worries me a lot. The community needs to be attentive and watch closely."


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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