It’s Still The Economy

By all rights, it should be a hot year in pro-Israel politics. Israel is being pounded by terrorists, U.S.-Israel relations are in flux and the United States is involved in a high-stakes war against terrorism.
But with a handful of high-profile exceptions, foreign policy seems to be the last thing on voters’ minds — including Jewish voters.
Jewish money is pouring into a sizzling Georgia House race featuring an incumbent, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, deemed hostile to Israel, and Minnesota, where Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone is getting hammered by pro-Israel PACs, some of which are unexpectedly supporting the challenger, also a Jew.
Those, however, are the exceptions. U.S. Mideast policy is a factor “in only a tiny handful of elections,” according to Kean University political scientist Gilbert
Kahn. Even the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, and the fear that there’s more to come, will not be high on voters’ agendas, he said.
image3goeshere “Terrible economic numbers before an election are still much more of a factor even than new terror attacks,” he said. “Foreign policy won’t be a deciding issue. If I were a candidate, I’d be much more worried about economic layoffs and corporate malfeasance.”
Another piece of conventional political wisdom also will probably be flouted on Nov. 5.
Republican activists have been predicting a large-scale defection of Jewish voters to their side, especially since President George W. Bush staked out strong pro-Israel positions, but there is little indication that will happen in 2002.
“It’s unlikely there will be any swing of Jewish voters in 2002,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “Jews will judge candidates more on the traditional domestic issues than on the war on terrorism or Mideast policy. That could change by 2004, but there are no signs of a shift in November.”
Wittmann said candidates are talking mostly about things like healthcare costs. The economy, he said, could become a dominant issue “if we double dip into recession.”
Most polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of congressional incumbents will easily survive on Nov. 5. But the narrow partisan margins in both Houses mean that control of Congress is up for grabs — with potentially huge consequences.
Three months before the election, Wittmann said, “the zeitgeist favors the Democrats. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them take back the House.
That would be a major blow to Bush’s conservative domestic agenda. But the Republicans also have a reasonable chance to win back the Senate, he said.
The Republicans’ prospects will decrease if “the economy goes south before the election,” Wittmann said. “The party that controls the White House always gets blamed for serious economic problems.”
Whichever way the congressional vote goes, the impact on U.S. Mideast policy is likely to be minimal, he said. With a few exceptions, congressional support for Israel has become wall to wall in both parties; the November results are unlikely to alter that.
More problematic is the question of any U.S. military action against Iraq. A Democratic House and Senate might be less inclined to give the Republican president a blank check for attacking Iraq.
House Races
One of the biggest changes when the new Congress convenes in January already has been determined: Ben Gilman, the longtime Rockland Republican, announced his retirement recently after a congressional remapping plan forced him into a district with another GOP incumbent.
For years he was the sole Jewish Republican in the House, and he was a ferociously pro-Israel voice. Two years ago he was joined by Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, who finds himself in a race against a former television personality.
Cantor’s challenger is Ben “Cooter” Jones; the nickname refers to his role on the television show “Dukes of Hazzard.” Jones is also a former member of Congress from Georgia.
Despite Jones’ celebrity status, political oddsmakers say Cantor is a good bet to hold on to his seat — this time as the only Jewish Republican in the House.
The only Jewish House incumbent who is seen as vulnerable is Rep. Shelley Berkeley (D-Nev.) — a longtime pro-Israel activist and two-term member of Congress.
Berkeley’s district is heavily Democratic, but she faces a spirited challenge from Los Vegas City Council member Lynette Boggs-McDonald, who wants to become the only African-American Republican in Congress now that J.C. Watts of Oklahoma is retiring. Recent polls show Berkeley pulling ahead.
Almost every other Jewish incumbent, including the perpetually vulnerable Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), appears safe in advance of the November voting, reflecting this fact: For all the talk of political upheaval, in the end incumbency — and the big money advantage enjoyed by incumbents — will ensure that the next Congress looks very much like the current one.
A shift that could have a big impact on the pro-Israel landscape in Congress is the political demise of some of Israel’s few remaining critics in the House.
Last week Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) was sentenced by a federal judge to eight years in prison on bribery and racketeering charges only days after he was expelled from the House.
But the flamboyant nine-term lawmaker already has filed for re-election as an independent, and said he plans to run a campaign from his jail cell. Traficant has emerged as the darling of the new America First party; last week there was talk he might even run for president under the party’s banner.
Still, Traficant’s political future is probably now confined to the anti-government, conspiracy-oriented talk-show circuit.
This week Michigan voters are deciding between incumbents in another redistricting-tinged race. Rep. John Dingell is squaring off against fellow Democrat Rep. Lynn Rivers. Dingell has often locked horns with pro-Israel forces, but the race has not focused on Mideast policy. Instead, the big issues are abortion, gun control and the environment.
In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, Democratic Rep. Jim Moran, another favorite of Arab-American and Muslim groups, is usually a shoo-in for re-election. But a series of newspaper exposes about his personal financial dealings could result in a serious challenge, although Virginia voters have proven remarkably tolerant of Moran’s ethical foibles.
In Alabama, pro-Israel forces already played a major role in funding the successful challenge to Rep. Earl Hilliard, a Democrat who has been a persistent critic of Israel.
When Hilliard appeared vulnerable, pro-Israel money flowed freely to his opponent, Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated lawyer. Both are black, but the Congressional Black Caucus pushed heavily for Hilliard’s re-election, and his loss remains a sore point between the CBC and Jewish groups.
Pro-Israel PACs are starting to raise serious money for former state Judge Denise Majette, who hopes to unseat McKinney in an Aug. 20 primary. McKinney has harshly criticized Israel and suggested that Bush knew about the Sept. 11 attacks in advance. But Muslim groups, including a PAC affiliated by the Council on American Islamic Relations, are rallying to her defense. Polls show a close race, although most political experts point out that McKinney has beat off serious challengers in the past.

Senate Races
In the Senate, several battles have drawn the attention of Jewish and pro-Israel activists.
The matchup in Minnesota could be the most interesting. Wellstone, a two-term Democrat and the most liberal member of the Senate, is facing a strong challenge from former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. In this state where less than 1 percent of the population is Jewish, both candidates are Jewish.
Wellstone gets strong support from many Jewish voters on domestic issues such as social-service funding and abortion. But single-interest pro-Israel groups are tilting toward Coleman.
“Wellstone talks a good game these days, but he hasn’t delivered,” said a leading pro-Israel political funder. “A lot of the PACs are starting to support Coleman. But you have to give a slight edge to Wellstone because of incumbency, money and name recognition.”
Most polls show the race too close to call, with Wellstone holding on to a narrow lead. But the incumbent could be dragged under by a Green Party candidate, Ed McGaa, who is expected to draw up to 3 percent of the vote in this liberal state — possibly enough to tip the election to Coleman.
Only one other Jewish senator is up for re-election in 2002. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who now serves as chair of the Armed Services Committee, is expected to have little difficulty beating state Rep. Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski.
Jewish leaders are watching the Senate primary battle in New Hampshire with special interest. Sen. Bob Smith, a maverick Republican, is fighting off a challenge by Rep. John Sununu, with voters making their choice on Sept. 10. Sununu, the only ethnic Palestinian in Congress and the son of the controversial White House chief of staff during the senior George Bush’s administration, is regarded as unsympathetic to Israel.
“He has one of the worst records on Israel in the House,” said Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington PAC, a top pro-Israel political action committee. “He’s in the bottom 10 percent.”
The campaign took on a Middle East cast early on when former Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the state to make a pitch for Smith. If the incumbent loses the primary to Sununu, pro-Israel money is likely to shift to the Democratic challenger — Gov. Jean Shaheen, who has made favorable noises about support for Israel during the campaign.
And in Nebraska, Chuck Hegel, a Republican elected in 1996, is considered almost a sure bet for a second term. That disturbs some pro-Israel activists.
“Chuck Hegel in his first term has shown he could be the pro-Israel community’s biggest problem in the Senate,” said Amitay.
Polls show that problem is likely to persist after November.