J Street takes aim at GOP senators who opposed Iran deal

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A focus of J Street’s campaign this year will be unseating Republican senators in Illinois and Wisconsin who led opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

“We see Mark Kirk and Ron Johnson as two of our biggest targets,” Ben Shnider, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group’s political director told JTA Friday in an interview, referring respectively to Kirk of Illinois and Johnson of Wisconsin.

“They were two of the biggest detractors of the deal” between Iran and six major powers exchanging sanctions relief for nuclear rollbacks, Shnider said. “Iran is being defanged, and they stood in the way.”

Shnider referred to the implementation, launched this weekend, of the deal, which kicked in once U.N. inspectors had confirmed that Iran had met its requirements as part of the agreement.

J Street is backing former Sen. Russ Feingold, who is Jewish and who was ousted by Johnson in the 2010 Republican sweep. It has yet to settle on an opponent to Kirk, although the candidate likely to emerge from the state’s Democratic primary on March 15 is Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., whom J Street has backed in the past for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Kirk and Johnson are considered among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, serving swing states in a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is high.

J Street’s campaign for this year, rolled out Friday on its political action committee’s website, includes 83 candidates who have agreed to accept the group’s endorsement, less than the 95 it endorsed in 2014, although Shnider said the group ultimately hopes to reach 110 endorsees.

A key aim of the rollout is preempting attacks on Democrats who backed President Barack Obama in his successful bid to stop Congress from killing the Iran deal. Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel officials at the time of the fight last summer said Democrats who backed the deal would be seen as vulnerable.

No such assault on Democrats who backed the deal has emerged yet, although NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, has been aggressive in raising funds for the minority of Democrats who opposed the deal, among them Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Brad Sherman, D-Calif., Ted Deutch, D-Fla. and Grace Meng, D-N.Y.

And despite the angry talk over the summer, it’s not clear whether deal backers truly are vulnerable.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which led opposition last year to a deal it said would leave Iran a nuclear threshold state, last week released a video emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship in cultivating support for Israel. AIPAC does not endorse candidates, but its members closely read its messages to determine where their candidate money goes.

Deborah Saxon, AIPAC’s assistant director for policy and government affairs, says in the video that casting Israel as a partisan issue is “shortsighted.”

“When it comes to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, our work relies on the support of both political parties, and today it has never been more important than to forge that kind of bipartisan support,” Saxon says.

J Street’s list this year notably does not include any Republicans; previous years have included nominal GOP representation, but Shnider said that the group and Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., its sole 2014 endorsee running this year, had come to a mutual agreement to end the relationship.

Jones survived a well-funded onslaught against his 2014 bid by PACs associated with the Republic Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing group established in part to neutralize J Street.

Besides Feingold, J Street’s Jewish endorsees this year include: Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif.; Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif.; Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.; Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.; and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

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