Jews in the House

by Jeff Fleischer

(World Jewish Digest, July 2008)

House of representatives

While much of the national attention toward this November’s election has focused on the presidential race, the battle for the House of Representatives will have a major impact on what policies the new president will be able to enact. With most prognosticators expecting the Democrats to hold or build on their current House majority, whether they’re actually able to do so will likely depend on the fates of several key members – specifically, Jewish ones.

There’s long been a strong correlation between Jewish voters and Democratic candidates. In 2006, when the Democrats picked up 30 previously Republican-held seats in the House – thereby securing the party’s first majority since 1994 – the nation saw one of the most heavily Jewish House chambers in history, with 30 Jewish members (29 of them Democrats). A total of 22 Jewish challengers – 20 Democrats and two Republicans – ran in 2006, and six Jewish Democrats were elected first-time congressmen. The Jewish/Democratic ballot connection was further reinforced when CNN exit polls found that 87 percent of Jewish voters nationwide backed Democrats in House races that year.

Indeed, if the Democrats expand their House majority this November, a significant number of those seats will belong to Jewish members.

“The underlying explanation for the Democrats’ success in 2006 was the national political climate,” explains Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University who specializes in elections and voting behavior. “The fact that voters were very unhappy with the Republican Congress, with President Bush, with the war in Iraq. All those factors made it appear very early that it was going to be a good year for the Democrats.”

Republicans, he adds, will have an even harder time retaking the House than they did defending it last time out. “The problem for Republicans this year is the national political climate is even worse for them than it was two years ago. Because in addition to an unpopular president and an unpopular war, now perceptions of the economy have turned extremely negative.”

The Jewish candidates

Many of the most prominent Jewish congressmen – among them Democrats Rahm Emanuel, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank and Robert Wexler – face only token opposition and are expected to easily win reelection. (The only Jewish Republican in the House – Eric Cantor of Virginia – is also likely to again win handily). The six who took over in 2006 and now face their first reelection bids include John Yarmuth (Kentucky 3rd), Ron Klein (Florida 22nd) and Paul Hodes (New Hampshire 2nd). All three Democrats defeated Republican incumbents, while Gabrielle Giffords (Arizona 8th) and Steve Kagen (Wisconsin 8th) won Republican open seats. In Tennessee’s ninth district, Steve Cohen was elected to an open seat already held by the Democrats that is considered safe this year. Cohen, Yarmuth and Hodes were the first Jews ever elected to Congress by their respective states.

Another Jewish challenger, Gary Trauner, lost a tight race to longtime Rep. Barbara Cubin last time in heavily Republican Wyoming. Cubin has since retired, and Trauner is again running for that state’s lone House seat.

Underscoring how important those Jewish members are to their party’s election strategy this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) selected Hodes, Klein, Giffords, Kagen and Yarmuth among the initial 29 congressmen (24 of them freshmen) in its “Frontline” program. Chaired by Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida, Frontline provides additional money and resources for Democratic incumbents considered potentially vulnerable. While all five candidates in the program won by small margins last time – Giffords with 54 percent, Hodes with 53 and the others with just 51 percent – all have an advantage they lacked last time: incumbency.

“As incumbents, they get to take advantage of some of the perks of the office,” Abramowitz says. “That includes things like having a staff in the district, the ability to travel back to the district regularly to meet with constituents and the franking privilege that allows them to send out mailings to the district along with an allowance that covers the cost of producing those newsletters. They can also cultivate the media in that district, send out press releases…All those things can boost their name recognition and favorable rating.”

The non-partisan Cook Political Report, which tracks competitive races, published its most recent analysis in early May. At that time, it labeled Hodes’ seat “likely Democratic,” with those of Yarmuth, Kagen and Giffords “leaning Democratic.”

These Frontline candidates all bring different backgrounds to their races. Yarmuth is a former newspaper publisher also known in Kentucky for appearing on television debate programs. In former Rep. Anne Northup, he rematches with a candidate who won five terms from the same district and was considered a rising GOP star before Yarmuth’s 2006 win.

Giffords was a Fulbright scholar and businesswoman before entering politics, and served in both houses of the Arizona legislature (she was the youngest woman every elected to the state senate). This year, she has an added challenge as Republican presidential nominee John McCain comes from her state and might drive increased Republican turnout.

Klein is now an incumbent after proving adept at knocking off longtime incumbents. He won his seat in the Florida state legislature in 1992 by defeating a 10-year veteran in the Democratic primary, and in 2006 won his congressional seat against a 24-year GOP member.

Kagen is a practicing physician and an assistant professor at a medical college. Despite rumors that former Rep. Mark Green might try to reclaim his old seat, Kagen will instead again face John Gard – whom he defeated for the seat Green left open in 2006 by running unsuccessfully for governor.

Hodes was his state’s assistant attorney general and has combined a law career with a talent for performing as an actor and singer – including several recordings of music for children. His challenger was not yet decided as of the date this article went online.

Among the reasons Democrats are likely to increase their House majority in November are the large number of retiring House Republicans and efforts by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen – Emanuel’s top deputy at the DCCC in 2006 and his successor as chairman – to begin candidate recruitment early.

That approach helped Democrats already gain three open congressional seats in this election cycle, winning special elections in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi. All three pickups came in longtime Republican districts where Bush won easily in 2000 and 2004. The Illinois seat was a particular feather in the Democrats’ cap, as it was long held by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

In addition to House Republicans retiring and the DCCC’s early recruitment, the Democratic Party is faring well financially – a reversal of traditional fortune that’s crucial with the cost of House races continually rising. The last quarterly filings with the Federal Elections Commission show the DCCC with about $37 million more cash on hand than its counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). In the three special elections, the DCCC spent some $3-4 million more than the NRCC. By comparison, the NRCC has averaged about $70 million more than the DCCC over the past few cycles.

The Republican National Committee, however, is doing well, holding a $26 million advantage over the DNC for the same filing period. As of press time, much of that total is expected to go toward the presidential race, where McCain is at a large financial disadvantage compared to Barack Obama. If McCain can close that fundraising gap, it will allow the RNC to devote more money to its candidates in House and Senate races. Meanwhile, the DNC hopes the end of its party’s divisive primary will help its fundraising efforts.

Suzanne Kurtz, press secretary for the Republican Jewish Coalition, says her organization is focusing on retaining at-risk incumbents friendly to its agenda, such as Mark Kirk (Illinois 10th) and Joe Knollenberg (Michigan 9th) – whom she describes as supporters of Israel and good fits for their districts. As for challenges to Democratic members, she cited secondterm Rep. Melissa Bean (Illinois 8th) and freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy (Pennsylvania 8th) – both seats deemed likely Democratic but competitive by the Cook Report – as examples of swing districts where the GOP might be able to pick up seats.

“We think John McCain’s going to help in all those places,” Kurtz says. “The nature of all those constituencies is that they have a large number of swing voters, and he’s always been popular with them, so that should be a big help to those candidates.”

While the Republican leadership focuses on retaining its party’s sitting members, even that goal could prove a challenge this November.

“The main thing that would have to happen for Republican fortunes to improve would be for the national political climate to change,” Abramowitz says. “That would mean that voters’ views on things like the president and the economy and the war would have to change, and there’s not much time for that. They’re going to take a hit in November for sure, and their best hope is that McCain can hold off Obama in the presidential race so it won’t be an across-the-board loss, but even that’s going to be tough.”

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine. He is currently a 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in Oceania.

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