With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, 34 seats are up for grabs on Nov. 2. And while a few races feature intense campaigns with too-close-to-call outcomes, most resemble the reelection effort of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is so far in front of his Republican opponent, state Assemblyman Howard Mills, that he is dipping into his campaign war chest to help other candidates.
"Very few of these are competitive races," said Morris Amitay, a longtime pro-Israel leader who closely tracks congressional races. "There are no real grabbers -- and almost no races in which Israel is an issue."
Most observers expect the Republicans to increase their 51-48 majority, but Democrats are hoping several closely fought races in states like South Carolina and Oklahoma will limit their losses.
Only 10 or 11 races are genuinely competitive, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist -- "mostly involving open seats." Only one Jewish incumbent is seen as vulnerable: Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
A few months ago, polls suggested Specter, one of the most senior Senate members, was facing the fight of his political life against Rep. Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat. But more recent polls show Specter, one of a vanishing breed of GOP moderates, holding a modest lead.
In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Jewish Democrat, is seeking a third term against Bill Jones, a former state official who recently got some help from former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a popular figure on the GOP campaign circuit.
Boxer voted against congressional authorization for the war in Iraq and an $87 billion emergency appropriation for the war -- positions that are popular in the mostly Democratic state, but which have made her a special target of GOP wrath. Boxer has also played a role in Democratic efforts to hold up anti-choice judicial nominees, a popular cause with Jewish women. A year ago, national Republicans made the liberal Boxer a top 2004 target; today, polls suggest their efforts are unlikely to be successful.
Pro-Israel leaders are also following a number of Senate battles without Jewish candidates. At the top of the list: South Dakota, where Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a three-term incumbent, faces a stiff challenge from former Rep. John Thune. The national GOP has targeted Daschle, and the race has been exceptionally bitter, especially on symbolic issues like flag desecration.
Daschle, who will be majority leader on the off chance Democrats regain control of the Senate Nov. 2, has "been great on Israel, and he's getting his fair share of support from the pro-Israel community," Amitay said. More importantly, his leadership status has made him a key ally for pro-Israel forces.
In one of very few races with Mideast overtones, Betty Castor, a Democrat and former state education commissioner, is running for the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Bob Graham in Florida. Her opponent, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, is hitting Castor for being soft on terrorism, because of her role in the controversy over a computer science professor at the University of South Florida alleged to have terrorist ties. Martinez forces charge Castor, who was president of the university at the time, with vacillation in the face of the terror charges.
However, Castor has developed strong relations with Florida's big Jewish community. A wildcard in the race: the political impact of Florida's epidemic of hurricanes and the role of Bush -- Gov. Jeb Bush's brother -- in funneling federal disaster aid into the state.
Refugee Law Could Lapse
Jewish immigration and refugee advocates were working their Capitol Hill contacts this week in a last-minute effort to protect a law that makes it easier for Iranian Jews to get into this country as refugees. The Specter/Lautenberg amendment, originally passed to help Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union, was extended in January to include Iranian Jews.
Bureaucratic snafus kept that provision from being implemented until August, but since then, the Iranian refugee backlog in Vienna, the primary transit point, has eased, said Leonard Glickman, CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Only a month after implementation began, the legislation was due to lapse as the fiscal year came to an end. The budget paralysis gripping Washington could get in the way of efforts to renew it.
"We have every indication of strong support for renewal," Glickman said. "What we don't have control of is the budget process."
The measure is an amendment to the Labor-Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill, which is unlikely to be passed before adjournment. How Congress deals with that failure -- through an all-encompassing omnibus spending bill or a continuing resolution -- will have a big impact on whether the Specter amendment is allowed to expire.
About 400-500 Iranian Jews out of a population estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000 are moving through the refugee pipeline every year, Glickman said. He praised the Bush administration for working out some of the kinks that had clogged the refugee system after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"After two straight years with fewer than 30,000 admissions, this year we will reach the funded ceiling of 50,000," Glickman said, referring to the overall refugee program. "Some of the security concerns have cleared up; the program for the former Soviet Union is running smoothly."
Jewish Political Ad Wars Intensifying
Recently, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) placed ads in Jewish newspapers in battleground states with significant Jewish populations, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The NJDC ads focus on two themes: Kerry's support for Israel and the Republican's connection to the religious right.
At the same time, the Kerry-Edwards campaign is paying for ads in many of the same papers.
"We are not running ads in nonbattleground states," a Jewish Democratic activist said. "Our job is to educate the undecideds and the weakly leaning Jewish voters in states where it can make a difference."
The NJDC is supplementing the ad campaign with "intensive voter contact" in six cities.
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which is in the middle of it's own intensive ad blitz, was quick to attack NJDC for a "false, misleading and distorted" campaign.
The NJDC ads, according to a RJC statement, imply "that President Bush and the Republican Party do not respect the religious pluralism and religious tolerance that are so much a part of the American tradition, and that through his faith-based initiatives, the president is trying to impose Christian religious beliefs on all Americans."
Matthew Brooks, the RJC director, accused the NJDC of using "scare tactics to influence the Jewish community with regard to President Bush."
But according to the Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan church-state watchdog group, the Republican National Committee is doing just that in Arkansas and West Virginia, where recent mailings claimed that "liberals" will ban the Bible if the Democrats win the Nov. 2 elections.
The Arkansas mailings, which the Republican National Committee acknowledged sending, show a Bible stamped "banned," suggesting that "this will be Arkansas if you don't vote." The campaign brochure also promises that a liberal victory will result in the legalization of gay marriage.
"No political party can claim that it holds the monopoly on religious morality, much less that it has received divine endorsement," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the nonpartisan group. "We call on President Bush and Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie to denounce these divisive tactics and to support the appropriate healing role of religion in this nation."
Beat the Clock on Anti-Semitism Bill
Jewish activists are playing beat the clock in an effort to win passage of a bill that would force the State Department to do more to monitor anti-Semitism worldwide.
The legislation authored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) would require the creation of a special office to monitor anti-Semitism and do an analysis of worldwide anti-Semitism as part of the annual human rights report. The State Department, claiming that would imply special treatment for a single group, raised objections, stalling the measure in the House.
However, the Lantos bill continues to pick up support. Last week, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the congressional Helsinki Commission, endorsed the measure. Earlier, a group of 100 prominent Americans wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to end the State Department's fight against the bill.
But time is running out as Congress races toward an Oct. 8 adjournment. House sources say a vote on the Lantos bill could be near. If it passes, a House-Senate conference committee will try to reconcile it with a separate bill sponsored by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), which cleared the Senate earlier.
Last week, Lantos reportedly won Voinovich's promise to accept the language in the House bill, paving the way for a quick conference, if the House acts in time.
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