The Great Schlep: That’s what comedian Sarah Silverman dubbed her campaign to convince young Jews to head down to the key swing state of Florida in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections to convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.
“If you knew that visiting your grandparents could change the world, would you do it?” she asked in the campaign video. “Of course you would. You’d have to be a douche nozzle not to.”
Silverman’s unconventional approach proved successful: Obama won Florida both times. In retrospect, Hillary Clinton could have benefited from a little schlepping. The state, notorious for its deep political divide with a reputation as the ultimate “purple” state and the site of the infamous Bush-Gore standoff in 2000, turned its back on Hillary and flipped for Donald Trump in 2016.
Now, on the eve of the fateful 2018 midterm elections, it isn’t just Floridian-Jewish retirees whose votes could play an important role in the battle for the U.S. Senate.
Two other Sun Belt states, Arizona and Nevada – whose Jewish populations have grown significantly over the past decade as they have become popular retirement destinations – are also in play. Each has a race close enough that even the relatively small Jewish vote can make a difference.
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This influence is magnified by the fact that older Jews are among the groups most likely to turn out at the polls, and the community is likely to be even more motivated after last Saturday’s devastating attack on Jewish worshippers by a white supremacist in Pittsburgh.
All three states have Senate races that are considered too close to call – and all are vital for the Democratic Party if it is to hold out any hope of taking both houses of Congress. While the FiveThirtyEight website estimates that the party has an 84 percent chance of taking the House, it offers it only a 15 percent shot of claiming the Senate.
Throughout the campaign, the three contests have seen Republicans and Democrats polling within four points of each other – often separated by only one point or even in a dead heat. A survey taken in October – before events in Pittsburgh – by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 74 percent of American Jews plan to vote for Democrats and only 26 percent intended to vote for the GOP.
In a contest viewed widely as a referendum on Trump, the survey found that only 23 percent of Jewish voters polled viewed the president favorably – a full 20 points below national figures.
In Florida, the original “schlep” state, an estimated 650,000 Jews are eligible to vote in the tight race between incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and the state’s popular governor Rick Scott, who wants to move from the State House to Washington.
Florida boasts the third-largest Jewish community in the United States: It has been estimated that Jewish voters comprise between 4 to 6 percent of total voters, a number large enough to have made it a traditionally important voting bloc in the Sunshine State.
In the neck-and-neck contest between Nelson and Scott, it could be enough to make the difference.
As a result, Israel has become a point of discussion in the campaign. However, it hasn’t been raised as often as it has in the state’s other big statistically tied race: The gubernatorial contest between Rep. Ron DeSantis and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Still, in an attempt to entice the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote away from Nelson, Scott has hammered the incumbent senator for voting in favor of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
The 'anti-Israel' card
While the Democrats’ goal in Florida is to keep an incumbent in place, in Arizona and Nevada the effort is to replace a GOP senator. Arizona’s 106,000 Jews are a smaller statistical slice of the population, comprising an estimated 2 percent of voters. Even so, the margin separating Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema from the GOP’s Rep. Martha McSally is narrow enough for every vote to count. With the race so tight, the community can have a decisive impact – particularly if Jews turn out in high numbers.
In the hard-fought campaign, Sinema has focused on health care while McSally has done her best to remind voters of Sinema’s past. She has frequently portrayed her as a radical left-wing extremist, citing past activism against U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (even going so far as to call her a traitor).
This includes Sinema’s attitude toward Israel before 2012, the year she entered Congress. The Republicans say she was far more critical of Israel in those days, belonging to groups that took positions the GOP has called “anti-Israel.” McSally contrasts this with her own record as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
Nevada, meanwhile, is home to one of the closest, most contentious and well-funded Senate races: Between incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen. Again, the Jewish population in the state is relatively small – between 1 and 2 percent. But Hillary Clinton won the state in the 2016 presidential election with a margin of just 1.6 percent, and polls show the candidates essentially in a tie.
Rosen has extra appeal to older Jewish voters in the state: The first-term congresswoman is not only Jewish herself, but emerged as a public figure serving as president of the state’s largest synagogue. She has worked to appeal to pro-Israel voters in her state, saying she, unlike most Democrats, would have opposed Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear pact.
Her opponent, Heller, enjoys the support of the state’s most powerful Jewish resident – casino billionaire and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who, together with his wife Miriam, also owns the state’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
So if the folks in Florida, Nevada, and Arizona who enjoy early-bird specials for dinner are diligent about their early voting, it could give the three Democratic Senate contenders an important edge they need for victory – whether or not their grandchildren decide to make the schlep.
Winning all three of these “Bubbe & Zayde” states may not guarantee Democrats the Senate – since the party is struggling in traditionally red states like North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, it is an uphill climb. But it will allow it to remain a possibility.