Jewish Journal

Jewish vote not a sure bet in swing state Nevada

By Jon Gold

Posted on Oct. 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm

Support for presidential candidate Barack Obama remains strong among Nevada's Jewish population, but Jews can no longer be counted on as a bloc vote for the Democrats.

It is a startling revelation to many Jewish leaders in the state, including Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom, one of the largest congregations in Las Vegas, whose members include Mayor Oscar Goodman and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.

When it was announced that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would speak at the temple in September, Goodman saw a divisive split among his members.

"Before we announced a Democrat was coming, people were up in arms," Goodman said of a subsequent visit by former California Congressman Mel Levine. "And then, of course, there were those who were delighted" at Lieberman's visit. "You could really see that the group was divided. The same amount of calls came in telling me it was wonderful as came in saying they were upset.

"People usually think the Jewish vote is a Democratic vote," he said. "In this day and age, it's very much split."

"I see a divide, but I see it as a divide that's been within them," said Rabbi Hershel Brooks of Temple Bet Knesset Bamidbar, a Reform Las Vegas congregation. "There's a divide about who will be a little more for the State of Israel. The divide isn't like they're all choking each other. It's still respectful; they're still friends. I don't think there will be this divide after the election. Not at all."

Goodman sees the change as longer term: "I think more and more Jews are shifting toward the right ideals, at least in Las Vegas," he said.

There are two main causes for the shift, all agree: First, many Nevada Jews supported Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and have been hesitant to put their full backing behind Obama. But also, the support of Israel by the Bush administration -- and by the McCain camp -- has many questioning their allegiances.

"There's no question that Hillary Clinton was more popular than Obama," said Rabbi Kenneth Segel of Las Vegas' Temple Sinai. "She had very strong standing here. She had the support of the muscled insiders. She would have been for many Democrats in this state a more logical choice than voting Republican."

Added Goodman: "There are certain issues that affect people in Nevada, specifically. The taxation issue is near and dear to their hearts. People don't accept it or admit it, but I think it's there. Yes, the support of Israel is a big part of it. The same is true on the other side of the coin. I've seen a lot of people who have turned. It's not only about Israel."

Many view the state as still up for grabs, even now. And because of Nevada's role as a swing state, many Jews on both sides of the ticket in surrounding states are flocking to Las Vegas to help stump for their cause, including Democrats from the blue state of California and Republicans from the red state of Arizona, McCain's home state.

"We do have a tremendous number of volunteers from California," said Paul Kincaid, spokesman for Nevada State Democratic Party. "They see that their state really isn't going to be a swing state, but Nevada might be one. A lot of folks are coming from all around —California, Arizona, even Utah."

Leo Bletnitsky, co-chair of the Southern Nevada chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), said California Republicans also are devoting their efforts to Nevada. "We've had a lot of people come here from California, because they know it's a lost cause [at home]. They understand how important it is to knock on doors and do some phone-banking. And it's been nice this year to make calls and not have people hang up the phone on me. People are at least listening now."

All this attention puts Nevada in an unfamiliar place.

For the first time in recent memory, major candidates are treating the state as a battleground, despite the fact that it offers the winner just five electoral college votes.

"Nevada in the past has largely been neglected by the major candidates, simply because of the five electoral votes," Segel said. "Nevada was sort of left behind. Because of the closeness and because of the division in the state -- the competitive aspect of it -- everyone is scrounging around."

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