by Jeff Fleischer(World Jewish Digest, August 2008)
These days, the U.S. Congress has a distinctly Jewish flavor. With 29 Jewish members, the House of Representatives currently boasts one of the largest Jewish contingents in its history. The Senate tops even that, with 13 of its 100 members Jewish. Indeed, in its 232 years of existence, the Senate has never been more Jewish.
One of the few sure things about this November’s election is that that number will remian intact.
The combined 42 Jewish members in the two houses of Congress place the United States behind only Israel and Great Britain in the total number of Jewish legislators. For the sake of comparison, as recently as 1974 there were only two Jewish senators: (Two Jewish governors also currently serve – Democrat Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Republican Linda Lingle of Hawaii – but neither is up for reelection this year).
Because only a third of Senate seats come up for a vote every two years – this year, 33 seats are up for regular election, as are two special-election seats – just three of the Senate’s 13 current Jewish members face reelection this November. Only one, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, is expected to have a close race, though he and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey both face Jewish opponents.
The 10 Jewish senators without races this year include both of California’s (Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein) and both of Wisconsin’s (Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, also Democrats). The others include Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Ron Wyden of Oregon and freshman Ben Cardin of Maryland, along with Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Both the Senate’s independents are also Jewish: first-termer Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, lost his party’s primary in 2006 but retained his seat with a third-party campaign and support from most of his state’s Republicans. With 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans currently in the Senate, the Democrats hold the majority because Sanders and Lieberman caucus with them.
Of the three Jewish senators up for reelection this year, Carl Levin of Michigan is expected to have the easiest race. Levin, 74 and first elected in 1978, is the longest-serving senator in Michigan’s history. With the Democrats’ 2006 takeover, he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
After a close race in his first reelection bid, Levin’s seat has never been in danger. From 1996 on, Republicans have fielded only token opposition against Levin, who has captured at least 58 percent of the vote in his last three reelections. This year he faces state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, who is receiving little help from the national Republican Party or the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the GOP equivalent of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee). All polls and analyses list his Michigan seat as “safe” this year as well.
New Jersey’s Lautenberg, first elected to fill an open seat in 1982, is another veteran Democrat in what most analysts consider a safe seat. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and a World War II veteran, Lautenberg previously retired from the Senate, choosing not to run for a fourth term before the 2000 cycle.
That retirement, however, proved short-lived. When Sen. Robert Torricelli resigned amid revelations of campaign contributions from a convicted felon, the Democratic Party asked Lautenberg to run for his state’s other Senate seat in 2002. He agreed and succeeded, capturing 54 percent of the vote – and having the odd distinction of becoming his state’s junior senator despite having 16 more years’ experience than his cosenator.
At 84, Lautenberg is one of the Senate’s oldest members, and this year faced a rare primary challenge. Democratic congressman Rob Andrews announced a run in April, but Lautenberg defeated him June 3 with 59 percent of the vote.
Joy Malkus, research director at the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a Jewish PAC which backs candidates of either party who support Israel, abortion rights and the separation of church and state, said the PAC decided to help Lautenberg beat back his primary challenger. “Lautenberg’s a very old friend of ours going back to the early days of the PAC, so we gave him some help in the primary.”
In the general election, Lautenberg faces Jewish former GOP Rep. Dick Zimmer. Despite one poll showing Zimmer polling above 40 percent, neither national party is so far treating this race as competitive.
The one Jewish incumbent facing a strong challenge is Coleman, Minnesota’s first-term Republican whose seat has spent most of the past two decades in Jewish hands (with Coleman preceded by Republican Rudy Boschwitz and Democrat Paul Wellstone).
The Republican Senatorial Committee has acknowledged that the Republicans are no longer focused on trying to regain the majority but on limiting the damage. Coleman made his name in politics as the mayor of St. Paul, elected to the job as a Democrat in 1993 and reelected to a second term as a Republican. Having placed second in a three-way gubernatorial race in 1998, he was planning to seek that job again in 2002. But, in part because of urging from the White House, he instead challenged Wellstone for his Senate seat.
Wellstone and Coleman were locked in a tight race when Wellstone died in a plane crash less than two weeks before the election. The Democrats replaced him on the ballot with former Vice President Walter Mondale, whom Coleman narrowly defeated with 50 percent of the vote.
The close nature of that election and Minnesota’s general support of Democratic candidates meant the Democrats identified Coleman early as an incumbent they wanted to challenge this year. Longtime political satirist, author and former Air America Radio host Al Franken announced in early 2007 that he would seek the Democratic-Farmer- Labor Party’s nomination, and immediately proved competitive in polls and fundraising.
Coleman, 58, was unanimously renominated by the Republicans at their state convention. Franken, 57, survived a late challenge – with opponents circulating some past comedy articles he’d written that some Democrats called inappropriate – to win the endorsement of his party’s June 7 convention. Because Minnesota’s actual primary isn’t until Sept. 9, upcoming challenges are still possible, but unlikely for either candidate at this stage.
Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura had floated the possibility of entering the race as a third-party candidate, but in mid-July he announced he would not run.
The Minnesota seat is one of a handful of battlegrounds in this year’s election, and could prove crucial to either party’s goals. Of the 35 seats up for election this year, 23 are currently held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats. Retirements make things more challenging for the GOP, creating open seats in Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho and Nebraska (though the latter two are expected to remain Republican).
“The reason so many Republican seats are up this year is that 2002 was a very good Republican year,” says Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University. “So the fact there’s so many of their seats up, they’re guaranteed to lose at least a couple given the kind of political climate that’s out there for them this year.”
Of the 12 Democratic incumbents running, only one – Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu – is in a race deemed competitive by nonpartisan polling organizations like the Cook Political Report and Rasmussen Reports. Democrats also hold a financial advantage; as of the last Federal Election Commission filing before press time, the Democratic Senatorial Committee had $37.6 million on hand, compared to $19.4 million for its equivalent, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The Republican Senatorial Committee has acknowledged that the Republicans are no longer focused on trying to regain the majority but on limiting the damage by supporting incumbents in tossup states like Minnesota. The Democrats, meanwhile, hope to reach 60 seats, which would allow them a majority large enough to break filibusters. Getting to that number, however, would require them to pick up nine of the 10 Republican seats they’re actively contesting and hold their one vulnerable seat. Barring a landslide in the presidential race, analysts instead predict a Democratic pickup of between two and five seats.
No matter what happens, though, the Senate will almost certainly wind up with 13 Jewish members, keeping its biggest minyan ever intact.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, Mental Floss and Chicago magazine. He is currently a 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in Oceania.