Jewish Journal

Few Surprises in Congressional Races

by James Besser

Posted on Nov. 4, 2004 at 7:00 pm

The next Congress will look a lot like the last one, which was marked by unprecedented partisan strife and legislative gridlock.

The reason: the vast majority of incumbents were easily returned to office. Of hundreds of contests nationwide, only a small handful were genuinely competitive.

For pro-Israel activists, Election 2004 offered little drama; almost every important friend of Israel was easily elected, and lawmakers who have been critical of Israel, an increasingly marginalized minority, were keeping their heads low.

Only one Jewish lawmaker lost his seat, while another is leaving Congress voluntarily; the House will have two new Jewish women on the Democratic side of the aisle.

All five Jewish senators up for reelection on Tuesday won handily. The Republicans will add four seats to their slim Senate majority and at least four to their majority in the House, with three undecided as of presstime.

The biggest loss for the Jewish community was the defeat of Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), a 13-term veteran who fell victim to an aggressive, controversial redistricting plan engineered by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The goal of the plan, which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court but too late to affect this year's results, was to add five Republicans to the GOP majority; the plan apparently went four for five on Tuesday.

Despite a spirited battle in a new and strongly Republican district, Frost lost to four-term Rep. Pete Sessions, a conservative, by a 57-41 percent margin. Frost conceded early Tuesday night after the two rivals clashed in the nation's most expensive House race.

"We are losing a veteran Democrat in the leadership at a time when there is a lot of unease about a drift away from Israel by the party," said Morris Amitay, a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist. "Martin Frost has been a very important supporter of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship for many years."

In the Senate, there will be a lot of familiar Jewish faces when the new Congress convenes in January.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of two Republican Jews in the upper chamber, faced a vigorous primary challenge earlier in the year, but on Tuesday bested Rep. Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat, by a 53-42 margin. Hoeffel gave up his seat to run against the moderate Republican -- and will be replaced by State Sen. Allyson Schwartz, a Jewish Democrat who beat her Republican rival, Melissa Brown. Specter's reelection and the GOP's successful defense of its Senate majority put the Jewish lawmaker in line to chair the critical Judiciary Committee, where he could play a critical role in confirmation proceedings for any new Supreme Court appointees.

A few weeks ago, political analysts predicted that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) could have trouble in a state that seemed to be shifting to the GOP column and which was also the focus of a concerted effort by the Bush-Cheney campaign. But when the votes were counted, Feingold won a third term by beating political newcomer Tim Michels by a 55-44 margin.

Things were a lot easier for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), running for a second term. Schumer was so far ahead of state assemblyman Howard Mills that he spent most of his time campaigning for other Democrats. When the votes were tallied, Schumer won with an overwhelming 71 percent of the vote.

In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, was once at the top of the Republican Party's senatorial hit list. But faced only token opposition from former secretary of state Bill Jones, Boxer won a third term by a 58-38 margin.

And in Oregon, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, easily fended off a challenge from political newcomer Al King. King, who ran a bargain-basement campaign against the well-financed Wyden, claimed that the incumbent had a "socialist" platform.

In Ohio, Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican, trounced former Democratic Rep. Eric Fingerhut, a onetime United Jewish Appeal leader. In South Carolina, Republican Jim DeMint defeated Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, the non-Jewish wife of a prominent Jewish activist, by 11 points in a race for an open seat.

In other races, congressional Democrats got a huge jolt when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was defeated in his bid for a fourth term by John Thune, a former House member who has also been a supporter of the Jewish state.

Daschle has been a powerful and effective friend of pro-Israel groups over the years; when the Thune challenge emerged, pro-Israel campaign givers rushed to the minority leader's assistance.

"We gave money to him," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, founder of a major pro-Israel political action committee. "I have mixed feelings about him because I'm a Republican. But I've known him since he was a congressman, and he's been a very strong supporter of Israel."

Daschle will probably be replaced as minority leader by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who "has been very good on our issues," Ganchrow said.

Barack Obama, a charismatic Democratic state senator in Illinois, swamped conservative talk-show host Alan Keyes, a Republican. Both candidates are black, but Keyes, who lived in Maryland before he ran for the Illinois seat, was unable to shed his image as a member of the GOP's far-right fringe -- an image that was reinforced last week when he compared Catholics who voted for the pro-choice Obama to Germans who supported the Nazis.

In Oklahoma, former Rep. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican, beat Rep. Brad Carson, a Democrat, for an open seat. In 1997, Coburn angered Jewish activists when he claimed that NBC was "polluting the minds of our children" by showing the Holocaust movie "Schindler's List."

In the House, there were few races that stirred more than cursory interest.

Early in the year, there were reports that Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the only Holocaust survivor in the Senate, could face his toughest race yet as he vied for a 13th term. But after dispatching several energetic challengers in the Democratic primaries, the pro-Israel veteran went on to defeat Republican Mike Garza by a massive 68-21 margin.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the only Jewish Republican in the House, won a third term the easy way: the Democrats didn't even bother putting up a challenger in the heavily GOP district in the Richmond area. Cantor, a rising star in the Republican cosmos and chief majority deputy whip, was a major campaigner for President George W. Bush in Jewish communities around the country.

Also in Virginia, Democrat David Ashe, a Jewish Marine veteran, was defeated by state delegate Thelma Drake, a Republican, in a race for an open seat.

There will be a new Jewish member from Florida: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat, won the race to replace Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Democrat who tried and failed to win the Democratic senatorial nomination. Schultz beat Republican Margaret Hostetter, a real estate broker, by a 70-30 margin.

Two races involved Democrats who had locked horns with Jewish and pro-Israel groups in the past. But this time around, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and former Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) tried to steer clear of the Israel issue. Moran triggered controversy two years ago when he suggested at a community forum that Jews bore some responsibility for the impending the Iraq war. The seven-term incumbent also had several major brushes with ethics controversies in recent years.

Despite fierce opposition by local Jewish activists, Moran first turned back a spirited primary challenge by a young Jewish activist and on Tuesday went on to beat defense consultant Lisa Marie Cheney -- no relation to the vice president -- by a 60-37 margin.

McKinney was defeated in 2002 when pro-Israel groups, angered by her persistent criticism of Israel, helped finance her opponent, Rep. Denise Majette, also a Democrat. But this year Majette abandoned the House to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who conspicuously supported President George W. Bush's reelection effort. Majette lost that race by a huge margin, and on Tuesday, McKinney easily beat Republican Catherine Davis to regain the seat she lost in 2002.

The narrow margins and the bitter polarization mean that the 109th Congress is likely to be a repeat of the 108th, which finished only a small fraction of its legislative to-do list because of partisan deadlocks.

L. Sandy Maisel, director of Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College, said that the slim GOP lead means "you can't get anything radical through Congress."

In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to shut off debate, and the GOP isn't even close, he said, allowing Democrats to retain the filibuster weapon. "So it's going to be another two years of trying to get anything through Congress at all," he said.

Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Jewish delegation in the House who easily won re-election this week, said -- somewhat dispiritedly -- that "there won't be any big change [in Congress]. It will be a real challenge for leaders to lead, and stop paralyzing the nation on critical issues."

House leaders have to rise above the partisanship that has produced legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill, he said.

"This is not about being a partisan leader; it's about being a national leader, about representing this nation," he said. "It's time that leaders understand that their responsibility is to build coalitions, to build broad support for policies, because Americans want that."

But Jewish leaders mostly expect more of the same: partisan squabbling and legislative gridlock.

A lobbyist for a major Jewish group in Washington said that Senate Democrats would continue to act as a partial brake to some church-state proposals and some judicial nominees -- but that "the Republican leadership will take this vote as a mandate and push much harder on their core issues. Unless people start reaching out across party lines, we're in for a very difficult two years."

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