Gearing Up For GOP Sweep
With a Republican sweep of the House and Senate a distinct possibility on Nov. 5, liberal Jewish activists are bracing for a new onslaught by congressional conservatives and the Bush administration on domestic policy issues and new tax cuts that could batter Jewish social service agencies.
“Our entire domestic agenda hangs in the balance,” said an official with a major Jewish group.
But politically conservative and Orthodox organizations would welcome a renewed push for private school vouchers and equal government funding for religious social service providers, which could be major priorities for an all-Republican Congress but have been stalled because of the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Even more important, a shift to Republican control of the Senate could change the calculus for nominations to the federal judiciary, where Democratic control
has slowed the administration’s effort to appoint conservative judges.
For the past year, the National Council of Jewish Women has been waging an aggressive campaign to oppose some of the Bush administration’s nominees because of their positions on abortion and other social issues. Officials of the nonpartisan group declined to comment about the upcoming election, but other Jewish activists say Nov. 5 could affect the nation’s judicial climate for years to come.
“If the Republicans control the Senate, there will be a real revolution in the law that will make the Warren Supreme Court, which some people saw as radical, look like a bunch of shopkeepers,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the partisan National Jewish Democratic Council. “Abortion is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Liberal Jewish groups will be in for a fight if the Republicans sweep Congress.
“A Republican sweep will, very simply, lower some of the hurdles the Bush administration has had on the conservative, social-agenda issues,” said the official with a major Jewish group. “A lot of proposals that the administration put on the back burner because they knew they wouldn’t stand a chance in the Democratic Senate will almost certainly be revived to see if they fly with Republicans in charge.”
That could include charitable choice, school vouchers and other controversial plans for helping parochial school parents. It will almost certainly include new or accelerated tax cuts that could produce new pressure to cut federal health and human service programs.
Late polls show that a Republican sweep is possible, although an unusually large number of tight races make predictions risky. Despite a year dominated by the beating of war drums, corporate scandals and a roller-coaster economy, the midterm contest will continue a decades-long trend: only a few incumbents face serious challenges and only a few voters seem to be paying attention.
“The issues are a mishmash, and that has helped Republicans so far,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “If the election had been about the usual domestic concerns — the weak economy, poor stock market, Social Security, health care — the Democrats would have received a boost for holding the Senate and taking control of the House.”
Instead, weeks worth of dramatic headlines about the Washington-area sniper and the looming war with Iraq have distracted voters who already didn’t seem interested, Sabato said. Even the noisy debate over the administration’s war plans has not energized voters except in a few key races.
Tight Senate Races
The Democrats currently hold 50 Senate seats to the Republicans’ 49; the GOP is up by six in the House. A week before Election Day, up to 10 Senate races are so close they fall within the margin of error of polls. Most experts say the odds are about even that the GOP will win enough seats to wrest back the control they lost in 2001, when James Jeffords of Vermont deserted the GOP to become an independent.
The calculations became even more complex with last week’s tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in a plane crash. Wellstone was regarded as the single most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. His challenger, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, had edged ahead in the polls, only to see his lead slip when Wellstone’s image was burnished in this liberal state by his opposition to President Bush’s war plans.
Coleman, like the late Wellstone, is Jewish.
Minnesota Democrats were scrambling this week to name a replacement for the Nov. 5 ballot, with former Vice President Walter Mondale, who served in the Senate for 12 years, the leading contender.
Wellstone was one of only two Jewish senators up for re-election in 2002. The other, Carl Levin of Michigan, faces only a token challenge from state Rep. Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski in his bid for a fifth term. Some polls have shown Levin, a Democrat, with an astounding 30-point lead.
Levin, chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee, reportedly considered retirement, but decided on another term when it became apparent that the battle to control the Senate would be too close to call.
Another pivotal race in the high-stakes drama was shaken up a few weeks ago, and now looks like a probable win for the Democrats. In New Jersey, Sen. Robert Torricelli, plagued by ethics troubles, was falling behind his Republican challenger, Douglas Forrester. But Torricelli pulled out, replaced on the Democratic ticket by former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Recent polls show Lautenberg, a former national UJA chairman, with a growing lead.
Pro-Israel activists are also watching the close Senate race in New Hampshire, where Republican Rep. John Sununu, son of the former White House chief of staff, and Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen are battling for the seat now held by Sen. Bob Smith, a Republican. Sununu, the only Palestinian American in Congress, defeated Smith in the GOP primary earlier this year.
Pro-Israel forces generally favor Shaheen, who has waged an energetic outreach to Jewish political funders across the country. Revealingly, the Republican Jewish Coalition, a thoroughly partisan group, is sitting out the New Hampshire race.
“But we expect that if Sununu is elected, we will have a productive relationship with him,” said RJC director Matthew Brooks.
House Incumbents Strong
In the House, the Republicans are expected to hold on to a diminished majority.
The Democrats have to pick up seven seats to regain control of the lower chamber for the first time since the 1995 Gingrich Revolution. All 435 House seats are in play, but surveys show the overwhelming majority of incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, should have little difficulty holding on to their jobs.
No Jewish incumbents are seriously threatened.
But one thing is certain when the new Congress convenes in January: the Jewish GOP contingent in the House will be cut in half, thanks to the redistricting-motivated retirement of Rep. Ben Gilman (R-Rockland).
Nationally, a handful of Jewish politicians are challenging House incumbents or vying for open seats. Only one is favored to win: Democrat Roger Kahn against Republican Phil Gingrey for a newly drawn district in Georgia.
Two Jews also have a good shot at winning gubernatorial contests — former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania and Linda Lingle in Hawaii. Rendell is a Democrat, Lingle a Republican and an active member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Jewish Republicans are pouring money into the re-election battle of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. The president’s brother faces a strong challenge from Democrat Bill McBride. Recently the Republican Jewish Coalition sent pro-Bush mailings to more than 200,000 Jewish households and brought in a major force in GOP politics: former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“Jeb Bush has been a tremendous friend and supporter of our community, and Jewish voters in Florida need to be aware of that,” said the RJC’s Brooks.
Few prognosticators will risk predictions on control of the Senate, but there is almost universal agreement on one thing: the battle has huge policy implications.
GOP leaders already have promised to press for accelerated tax cuts if they sweep Congress. Critics say that will just add to a burgeoning federal deficit and force deep cuts in “discretionary spending” — mostly health and human services.
“The Republicans don’t have much of a domestic agenda right now,” said Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “It’s tax cuts that are important to them. No matter what’s happening in the economy, that’s their answer.”
Any attempt to accelerate or make permanent the 1991 tax cuts, he said, “would definitely create new budget problems and force new program cuts.”
But Democrats are quieter about the fact that many of their own voted for the 2001 cuts, and may vote with the administration in 2003.
A Republican majority in both houses would have a harder time with some of the hot-button domestic issues favored by the religious right, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.
“A GOP takeover of both Houses would help Bush with his agenda,” he said. “But because the margins will be very close, the agenda is likely to resemble the one in 2001 before 9-11.”