The Nov. 8 races that Jewish Americans are watching closely

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Consider two races in Pennsylvania.

For governor, a Jewish Democrat whose ads show off his Shabbat observance is squaring off against a far-right Republican who platforms Christian nationalists and has ties to an outspoken antisemite.

For Congress in the 7th District — which has a relatively low ratio of Jewish residents — two Jewish women candidates are going head-to-head: One is a Democrat who had her bat mitzvah in Israel as an adult, the other is a Republican Hebrew speaker who has donated at least $1 million to a university there.

The Pennsylvania stories represent the two streams of Jewish significance about this election cycle leading up to the nationwide vote on Tuesday. On one hand, an array of candidates are courting antisemitic supporters in ways that have been unimaginable for decades, as a string of high-profile antisemitism controversies threaten to turn into a moment of renewed violence against Jews.

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On the other hand, the cycle also features multiple candidates who are proudly Jewish in ways that their political predecessors were hesitant to express.

Here’s a closer look at several of the races that offer a snapshot of the Jewish stakes in the election next week.

Josh Shapiro.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks before President Joe Biden takes the stage to speak at the Marts Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Aug. 30, 2022. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Josh Shapiro v. Doug Mastriano

Pennsylvania governor

Pennsylvania is often described as a state bound by two liberal enclaves — Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — sandwiching a conservative, rural middle. One reliable way for big-city politicians to reach the heartland is to wear their faith and “family values” on their sleeves, and that’s what Josh Shapiro, the state’s Philadelphia-based Democratic attorney general, did in his first ad: This is a guy, the ad conveys, who made sure to be home by Shabbat to spend time with his family.

Shapiro’s ad stood out because Jewish candidates have rarely placed their Jewish observance at the forefront of their general campaign (as opposed to campaigning within the Jewish community, where they will talk up their Jewish involvement). Shapiro bet that Pennsylvanians would understand challah on the table to be as meaningful as a Christmas tree in the corner.

It may be working — Shapiro is substantially leading his Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano. But a classic campaign tactic is to weaponize your opponent’s strength and Mastriano cast Shapiro’s children’s attendance at a Jewish day school as “elite” and “privileged.”

Mastriano, who was former President Donald Trump’s favored candidate in the primary and who was in Washington during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, insists there is no malicious intent — he noted that in his attack on Shapiro he does not identify the school as Jewish. But Mastriano had already earned plenty of Jewish skepticism by paying Gab, the far-right social media site owned by admitted antisemite Andrew Torba, to promote his campaign on the platform. He then accepted a donation to his campaign from Torba after ostensibly cutting ties with him and condemning antisemitism.

Mastriano has become a poster child for the Democratic push to label Republicans as a party of extremists, and in many cases, antisemites. The Republican Jewish Coalition expressed concerns about Mastriano’s failure to fully distance himself from Torba, a rare instance of a partisan Jewish group calling out a candidate from its party.

The controversy has continued. One of his advisers said last week that Shapiro was not authentically Jewish. And when an Israeli reporter asked Mastriano about his Jewish controversies, his wife said that the family loves Israel. Even “more” than Jews love Israel.

Lee Zeldin.

Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York campaigns in Hauppauge, New York, Oct. 29, 2022. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Kathy Hochul v. Lee Zeldin

New York governor

Rep. Lee Zeldin was considered a longshot when he announced a bid for governor of one of the East Coast’s most liberal states. The Jewish Long Islander was an avid defender of Donald Trump during his presidency, and the former president is reviled in his home state. Zeldin voted against certifying Biden for president on Jan. 6 and has opposed abortion rights.

But Zeldin, who has Trump’s endorsement, has hammered Gov. Kathy Hochul on rising crime in New York and is now within striking distance according to polls.

As one of only two Jewish Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, Zeldin has carved out a space for himself as one of Congress’ most vocal pro-Israel voices and is a member of Jewish congressional groups. He has earned significant Jewish community support, including millions of dollars from Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and heir to the Estee Lauder fortune.

But his inroads among the state’s haredi Orthodox communities has led headlines in recent weeks. After a New York Times article spotlighted the controversy over haredi yeshivas’ secular education practices, Zeldin pledged to support them, making the topic a key campaign issue in Brooklyn.

“People feel that Hochul has been silent on this issue,” an anonymous insider told the New York Jewish Week in a recent report. “They feel that Zeldin has been very vocal and hopefully when he becomes governor he’ll continue with that.”

Elaine Luria.

Rep. Elaine Luria questions a witness during the House Select Committee hearing investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, July 27, 2021. (Bill O’Leary/Pool/Getty Images)

Elaine Luria v. Jen Kiggans and Elissa Slotkin v. Tom Barrett

House seats in Virginia and Michigan

In 2019, five freshmen women Democrats in swing districts rose to national prominence when they opposed impeaching Trump — then changed their minds. Their decisions gave Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, the green light to start the proceedings.

They were called the “badass caucus,” partially due to the fact that all five had served in the military or intelligence communities. Two of them are Jewish, and unabashedly so. Elissa Slotkin, a CIA veteran in Michigan’s 7th District, has been out front on Holocaust education legislation. Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander in Virginia’s 2nd District, ran an ad holding a weathered Hebrew bible as she explained why she backed impeachment.

Both are now in extremely tight races to stay in office.

Slotkin is facing Tom Barrett, a state senator who has peddled some of Trump’s 2020 election lies. Although she even has the backing of Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, Slotkin is battling anti-incumbent anger at inflation; most polls give her a slight lead, but some have her behind.

Luria — who is getting hit for serving on the House Jan. 6 committee (alongside Cheney), which her rival says is a distraction — is locked in an even tighter race, what most outlets are calling a 50-50 dead heat.

Susan Wild.

Susan Wild speaks as members of Congress share their recollections on the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Jan, 6, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/Pool/Getty Images)

Susan Wild v. Lisa Scheller

House seat in Pennsylvania

Rep. Susan Wild, like Slotkin and Luria, is another Jewish woman Democrat in a swing district who is facing a Trump-endorsed candidate. Other similarities: all three districts were redrawn and now are slightly more favorable to Republicans and all three races have drawn in millions in contributions to both parties. Polls rate this one as a toss-up, too.

All three women have also risen rapidly in Democratic ranks since their election in 2018 — Wild was just named chairwoman of the House Ethics committee, one of the most sensitive leadership roles, in a sign that she has the trust of Nancy Pelosi.

There is one key Jewish difference in this race, though: Wild is facing another Jewish candidate who has also emphasized her Jewishness in her campaign.

Lisa Scheller, a businesswoman, has initiated a 2020 rematch and a rare Jew-on-Jew battle (there are only two other such races this cycle, and neither is competitive). What’s even more unusual is that the 7th District, which runs along the border with northern New Jersey and includes Allentown, is not known as a particularly Jewish hub — there are perhaps 10,000 Jews, out of a total population of over 700,000.

In 2020, they geared one of their debates for the Jewish community, talking about issues such as Israel and antisemitism. Both have emphasized ties to Israel: Scheller, a Hebrew speaker, maintains a home there and has given more than $1 million to Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Wild, whose first husband was Jewish, decided to convert when her son wanted a bar mitzvah. She then had her own bat mitzvah ceremony alongside her daughter in Israel.

If elected, Scheller, who has Trump’s endorsement, would likely bring GOP Jewish representation in the House to three, for the first time in decades. David Kustoff, a Tennessee incumbent, and Max Miller, running in an open seat in Ohio, are both likely to win.

Republican nominee for Arizona governor Kari Lake speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Aug. 6, 2022. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Kari Lake v. Katie Hobbs

Arizona governor

Arizona has an active and engaged Jewish community, one that’s growing as more Jewish families head to the sunbelt. A 2019 survey found that the Jewish population in Maricopa County, the state’s largest and where Phoenix is situated, had grown by 19% since 2002. 

There are about 115,000 Jews in the state — enough to swing this purple state’s closely-watched state-wide elections either way. President Joe Biden flipped Arizona blue in 2020, and Republicans want it back. Arizona’s Jews trend more conservative than Jews do nationwide, which might be a plus for Republicans in the state. 

What’s likely not a plus in the eyes of the community is that the four Republicans in top statewide races, for governor, U.S. senator, attorney general and secretary of state have all had associations with antisemites and antisemitism.

Kari Lake, a former TV newscaster who was a registered Democrat until Trump’s 2016 election galvanized her, is running against Katie Hobbs, the Democrat who is the incumbent secretary of state. Much of the campaign has focused on election integrity, with Lake embracing some of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. But her new friends have at times caused trouble. 

Last year, she posed for a photo with a Nazi sympathizer and told him on Twitter, “It was a pleasure to meet you, too!” She endorsed and then withdrew her endorsement of an Oklahoma candidate who called Jews “evil.”

Mark Finchem, running for secretary of state, has proudly accepted Gab founder Andrew Torba’s endorsement, and the Phoenix Jewish Community Relations Council in September criticized him for spreading “antisemitic tropes” by claiming Democrats are controlled by George Soros and Mike Bloomberg, both Jewish megadonors. Finchem refuted a charge of antisemitism by declaring, “I love the Jews,” but he has also frequently employed language calling his opponents “Marxists,” a charge that, historically, antisemites dating back to Great Depression-era radio preacher Father Coughlin have directed at liberal or secular Jews.

In the wake of it all, Lake — who has similarly brought up Soros and Bloomberg and has not denounced Finchem’s tarnished campaign — has struggled to shake accusations that she is cozy with antisemites. She nevertheless holds a slight lead as of this week. 

The Arizona controversy doesn’t stop there, however. Blake Masters is the Trump-endorsed candidate for Senate who hopes to unseat Democrat Mark Kelly, the former astronaut who is married to Gabrielle Giffords — the Jewish congresswoman shot at an event in 2011. Jewish Insider uncovered an article Masters wrote in 2006 for a publication in which he cites a “poignant” quote by Nazi official Hermann Goering. The publication is owned by Lew Rockwell, the libertarian who is believed to have written content for one-time Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul that included racist and antisemitic tropes. Kelly held a wide lead earlier in the race, but that is no longer the case.

Then there’s Abraham Hamadeh, another Trump endorsee who disputed the 2020 election and who is running in a close race for attorney general. He posted antisemitic comments as a teenager on a forum for supporters of Paul, the same politician who Masters admired as a young man. Hamadeh’s campaign has said the comments were the rantings of a teenager and that he should not be judged by them. 

Adam Laxalt joins former President Donald Trump on stage during a campaign rally at the Minden-Tahoe Airport in Minden, Nev., Oct. 8, 2022. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Catherine Cortez Masto v. Adam Laxalt

Nevada Senate seat

Nevada’s Jewish population is also growing and could also play the role of decider in Tuesday’s elections — to the extent that Jewish partisan groups are spending time and money in the state targeting Jewish voters.

The state is hosting one of the country’s closest Senate races, between incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt, a former attorney general. Again, antisemitism is an issue in this campaign.

The Anti-Defamation League called Laxalt an extremist for his ties to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association fringe group. Last weekend, Jewish Insider revealed that a former staffer for Laxalt, using a pseudonym, “LaxaltStan,” tweeted out bigoted comments about Jews, women and the LGBTQ community. Laxalt’s campaign said the staffer left the campaign in August and condemned his account’s “bigoted opinions.” The spokesman did not explain why the staffer left the campaign.

Cortez Masto convened a campaign event on Monday with Nevada’s other senator, Jacky Rosen, a Jewish Democrat, to call for greater condemnation of antisemitism

Also on the ballot in Nevada is Sigal Chattah, a Republican who is seeking to unseat Aaron Ford as attorney general — and in the process become the first Israeli American elected to statewide office in the United States. Chattah has leaned into her Israel identity in her campaigning; her other claim to fame is leading legal battles to remove coronavirus restrictions.


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