Jewish Democrats win big, both as candidates and as voters


WASHINGTON — Jewish Democrats increased their numbers in the U.S. Congress, joining their party in winning the House of Representatives on a wave of public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the economy.

At least six Jews were among the new Democrats sweeping into the House. In the Senate, which is still up for grabs, Jewish senators increased their numbers from 11 to 13 — a record high.

U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, a Democrat running in Maryland, added to the incumbent minyan plus one.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman retained his seat after a bruising battle that followed his loss in the Democratic primary and his run as an independent. The pro-Israel community played a key role in his victory.

Pro-Israel donors were not so successful in Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Rick Santorum lost his re-election bid — and most of the Pennsylvania Jewish vote — to his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey.

Indeed, the traditional Jewish affinity for Democrats appeared reinforced by a CNN exit poll showing support from 87 percent of Jewish voters nationwide. Only 12 percent favored Republicans. The poll canvassed fewer than 300 Jewish voters, a sample usually considered too small to be determinative.

If accurate, those returns — the highest favoring Democrats in 14 years — appeared to repudiate a barrage of pre-election Republican Jewish Coalition ads saying Democratic support for Israel was eroding.

In gubernatorial races, there were three Jewish winners, including Democrat Eliot Spitzer of New York, making him the first Jewish governor in decades. Gov. Ed Rendell, Democrat in Pennsylvania and Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican in Hawaii, also won their re-election bids.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also won their re-election bids.

All but one of the Jews elected or re-elected to the House and to the Senate on Tuesday were Democrats or pledged to vote with the Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican from Virginia, remains the only Jewish Republican in the House.

In Connecticut, Lieberman’s defeat of his Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, marked a major political comeback.

Lamont is a cable TV magnate who used anti-Iraq war sentiment to best Lieberman in the Democratic primary. Lieberman backed the Iraq war, but it was his solid pro-Israel record and iconic status as the first Jew to feature on a viable presidential ticket in 2000 that drew strong support from segments of the pro-Israel community.

Lieberman garnered about $2 million from Jewish and pro-Israel supporters.

David Greenfield, the executive director of the Sephardic Community Federation in Brooklyn, was one of many Jews from the Northeast who came out to support Lieberman on Election Day.

“The moral, emotional and financial support Lieberman had from the Jewish community helped him come through this election,” Greenfield said at the Lieberman victory party in Connecticut on Tuesday night. “As far as the American Jewish community is concerned, he is a hero.”

Still, he was not universally supported among Connecticut Jews. According to one exit poll, Lieberman garnered 60 percent of the Jewish vote to Lamont’s 40 percent.

Pro-Israel money was also a factor in Rhode Island, where Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s Middle East subcommittee, was projected to lose to Sheldon Whitehouse.

Chafee was a tough critic of Israel’s settlement policy, and blocked the nomination of John Bolton — who is very friendly to Israel — as ambassador to the United Nations to protest a planned settlement expansion. Pro-Israel contributors boosted Whitehouse’s bid.

They also helped Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat, defeat U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind. Hostettler was a social conservative who was cool on Israel.

However, Jewish donors who made Israel their primary consideration failed in Pennsylvania, where Santorum lost to Casey, the state treasurer.

Santorum’s solid pro-Israel record earned him $2 million in contributions, but his rock-hard conservatism on social issues like abortion and gay marriage drove Jews to Casey, who drew more Jewish money overall. One exit poll suggested Casey also drew more than 80 percent of the Jewish vote.

Of the at least 25 new Democrats set to serve in the 110th Congress, six will be Jewish. That brings to 30 the total number of Jewish representatives. The six Jewish pickups included three state legislators who ascended to Congress: Gabrielle Giffords, in Arizona, handily won a Tucson-area seat vacated by a Republican; Ron Klein in Florida ousted longtime Republican incumbent Clay Shaw; and Steve Cohen in Tennessee won the Memphis seat vacated by Harold Ford.

The other three Jewish winners are: Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, John Yarmuth of Kentucky and Steve Kagen of Wisconsin.

Questions of Jewishness often played a quirky role in the race. There was U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., the unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate who said she was a “wannabe” Jew. And there was U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who said he didn’t wannabe any kind of Jew. Allen, whose race is still a toss-up, at first denied and then acknowledged his mother’s Jewishness — quickly adding, however, that he favored pork chops and ham sandwiches.

In a year in which candidates ran and voters voted overwhelmingly on national issues, Jewish voters and candidates were no different.

“This vote is a referendum on the Iraq war,” said Lisa Sockett, a part-time law professor and mother of two from Arlington, Va.

She said Iraq and Republican opposition to gay marriage informed her vote for Jim Webb, a Democrat running against Allen.

One constant among Jewish candidates and those close to the Jewish community was health care: It was a central issue for Giffords in Arizona; Kagen, a doctor, in Wisconsin; and John Sarbanes, a health care lawyer and Democrat who won Cardin’s old seat in Maryland.

“Any time you have a community that makes part of its culture reaching out to the less fortunate, the health care issue will be front and center,” said Sarbanes, whose wife and children are Jewish and who belongs to a Baltimore-area synagogue.

“You’re reaching out to people who don’t have health insurance.”

JTA staff writer Ben Harris contributed reporting from Connecticut.