November 5, 1998
No Earthquake, but Tremors for the GOP
Rep. Charles Schumer's upset of Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato is the election's biggest seismic shock; Jewish incumbents fare well
But Tuesday's electoral tremors mostly rattled a GOP leadership that made Bill Clinton's moral lapses a top issue despite polls suggesting voters were tired of the controversy and opposed to impeachment. The predicted Republican gains in both Houses failed to materialize; as the dust settled, the Democrats were expected to pick up five seats in the House and hold even in the Senate.
The 106th Congress, which convenes in January, will look remarkably like the 105th -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
Jewish incumbents, like their non-Jewish colleagues, fared well in a year when special-interest money ruled and the "throw the rascals out" theme of the past two elections was hard to detect.
Observers noted another trend: American Jews, who have been drifting slowly in the direction of the GOP, seemed to come back to the Democrats.
One big loser was the Christian right, which had invested heavily in key congressional and gubernatorial races, as well as several anti-abortion ballot initiatives. But that investment turned sour with the defeat of Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., one of the most conservative members of the Senate, and Alabama Gov. Fob James, a Republican who was accused of spending more time fighting for public displays of religious symbols than for jobs.
"It was a very bad night for groups like the Christian Coalition," said American University political scientist Allan Lichtman. "They expected to capitalize on the president's problems, but, in a number of races, their candidates lost. It means that the Republicans will have to come back to the center for the 2000 presidential race, although it also may encourage House members on the right to try to depose Gingrich next year."
Faircloth's defeat at the hands of John Edwards, a wealthy political newcomer, was a double victory for the Jewish community, said Howard Friedman, a top pro-Israel activist in Baltimore. In addition to Faircloth's domestic conservatism, "he was the only Senate incumbent running for re-election who didn't have a good record on Israel. So his loss was a nice pickup for our community."
Although a detailed breakdown of the Jewish vote nationwide was not available, several observers suggested a stronger Jewish turnout for the Democrats than in recent elections. Exit polls showed strong Jewish Democratic voting in Illinois, California and New York.
"Economic security was a big factor for many. But, even more, I think Jews have faith in Bill Clinton," said Gilbert Kahn, a political consultant and professor at Kean College in New Jersey. "They saw him as having their interests at heart, both internationally and domestically, and they wanted to help him."
Early Wednesday morning, Jewish Republicans were taking solace in their continued control of both Houses.
"Come the 106th Congress, Newt Gingrich will still be speaker, Sen. Lott will still be the Senate majority leader, and we'll still have 80 percent of the American people living under Republican governors,"said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group.
In the Senate, four of 10 Jewish members were up for re-election. Two -- Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. -- coasted to easy victories. Two others had a harder time. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., struggled to retain her seat against state Treasurer Matt Fong, who ran an effective, centrist campaign. But Boxer, with help from the president and first lady and a last-minute negative advertising blitz, came out ahead, defying the conventional wisdom that her liberalism and aggressive personality were out of step with California voters.
And in one of the most closely watched races in the nation, Sen. Russ Feingold, one of two Jewish senators from Wisconsin and the leading Senate advocate of campaign finance reform, lived by the rules he had proposed for all his colleagues -- and came close to losing as a result.
Feingold's refusal to take political action committee money or big out-of-state contributions provided a golden opportunity for the Republicans, who poured big money into the campaign of his opponent, two-term Congressman Mark Neumann. By Election Day, the race was too close to call. But, in the end, Feingold retained his seat for a second term by a slim margin.
The biggest seismic shock of the night was the loss of three-term Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato to Rep. Charles Schumer, a Jewish Democrat from Brooklyn. It was a contest marred by mudslinging that stood out even in this particularly dirty election year.
Political observers expected D'Amato, a pro-Israel loyalist who became the leading Senate advocate for Holocaust victims and heirs seeking restitution, to get at least 40 percent of the Jewish vote. But exit polls indicated that the tough-talking Republican was chosen by only about 21 percent. D'Amato was hurt by his slur of Schumer before a group of New York Jewish activists -- he called the challenger a "putzhead" -- and by a recent campaign appearance with Holocaust survivors, which earned him criticism for trying to score political points on the sensitive issue.
Schumer is "poised to project a very formidable voice for the Jewish community in the Senate," said political scientist Gilbert Kahn. "After 18 years of leadership in the House, the move to the upper chamber is a natural transition for him. He knows the issues the Jewish community cares about, both on the internal and domestic scenes."
Schumer's victory and the survival of the four incumbent Jewish senators brings the Jewish total in the upper house up to 11.
In the House, incumbency proved a similar advantage. Most of the 24 Jewish members won re-election, most by big margins, several without any opposition.
The only Jewish incumbent who lost was Rep. Jon Fox, R-Pa., who fell to the man he beat by 84 votes in 1996, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel. Fox's loss, and the death earlier in the year of Rep. Steve Schiff, R-N.M., leaves Rep. Ben Gilman of New York the only Jewish Republican in the House.