There Are Some Jewish Newcomers on Capitol Hill, but None in Senate

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 30, 2020.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 30, 2020.Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/ REUTERS

It was a disappointing election night for Jewish candidates hoping to join the U.S. Senate in 2020. All four Senate hopefuls in the running – all Democrats – lost their bids, two in seats their party had hoped would bring them nearer to winning a majority in the chamber.

The highest-profile loss went to Jon Ossoff, the 33-year-old Jewish media executive who had challenged Georgia Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue, 70, who was seeking a second term. It was the second failure for Ossoff in the national spotlight, following his failed bid to win a House of Representatives special election in 2017. In both races, he polled competitively throughout the campaign, and generated enough enthusiasm to set fundraising records, but fell short at the end. On Wednesday morning, Perdue led Ossoff 50-47 percent, with 94 percent of the vote counted.

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Ossoff was praised for his debate performances, one of which included a broadside against Perdue for attacking his Jewish heritage in a campaign ad, saying Perdue was “lengthening my nose in attack ads to remind everybody that I’m Jewish.”

Georgia's democratic senatorial nominee Jon Ossoff arriving to attend the funeral for Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot dead by a police officer, Atlanta, Georgia, June 23, 2020.Credit: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Georgia had another prominent Jewish candidate in the race, albeit with less of a shot at victory, and in a more complicated format. In a special election contest, Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, ran against Republicans Kelly Loeffler, Doug Collins and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock. The group contest has resulted in a runoff election between Loeffler and Warnock, with Lieberman garnering only a tiny percentage of the vote.

Dr. Al Gross in Alaska, the former orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman who challenged first-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, failed in his Senate bid despite raising impressive sums from Democrats who saw potential in the possibility of scoring an upset and flipping Alaska’s seat blue. Theirs was another race in which the Jewish candidate asserted that his opponent was using antisemitic tropes. Although far less than half of Alaska’s votes were counted by Wednesday morning, Sullivan was running significantly ahead of Gross, 61-33 percent.

Senate candidate Al Gross.Credit: Gross for Senate Campaign via AP

In Wyoming, the first Israeli to run for statewide office for a major party in U.S. history, Merav Ben-David, lost her longshot Senate bid to Republican Cynthia Lummis, with Lummis beating her badly, 73-27 percent.

While his seat wasn’t in contention this year, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York was surely watching the Senate races as nervously as any candidate. If the Democrats manage to take control of the Senate – a scenario that seemed increasingly unlikely though still possible Wednesday morning – the senior Jewish legislator would become the first-ever Jewish Senate majority leader.

Another big disappointment for Democrats Tuesday took place in the House of Representatives, with the apparent defeat of first-term Democratic Congressman Max Rose in New York’s 11th District in Staten Island to Republican State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis. With the vast majority of votes counted, Rose trailed Malliotakis by a substantial margin, 58-42 percent.

The Republicans kept their two seats in the House that are occupied by Jewish incumbents. Lee Zeldin beat back an aggressive challenge by Democrat Nancy Goroff, who is also Jewish, in Long Island’s 1st District, 61-38 percent. And in Tennessee, GOP Congressman David Kustoff easily won reelection in the state’s 8th District, defeating Democratic opponent Erika Pearson with 69 percent of the vote to Pearson’s 29 percent.

Election night wasn’t all disappointments for Jewish Democrats on Capitol Hill. The party hung on to the vast majority of the 23 incumbents up for reelection, including their two most powerful House members, California’s Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Some of those incumbents, like Zeldin, faced Jewish challengers, most prominently in Florida’s 21st District, where Rep. Lois Frankel decisively beat her controversial, high-profile opponent, far-right Republican and social media personality Laura Loomer, who has faced criticism for propagating conspiracy theories. After all the votes were counted in Florida, Frankel came in well ahead of Loomer, 59-39 percent.

There will also be new Jewish members of the House, with several pulling off victories. One of them is unlikely to be celebrated by AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying organizations: Sara Jacobs, a former Obama administration State Department official and Hillary Clinton adviser who narrowly defeated Georgette Gomez in California’s 53rd District.

Jacobs has been quoted as saying, “I think all U.S. assistance needs to be viewed through the lens of ‘Does it move things closer to peace?’”

She is also rumored to be romantically involved with Gaza-born Latino Palestinian politician Ammar Campa-Najjar, who was fighting his own battle for a San Diego-area congressional seat Wednesday morning. Campa-Najjar has been attacked by his opponent for being the grandson of a Palestinian terrorist belonging to the notorious Black September organization.

Kathy Manning, Democratic nominee for North Carolina's Sixth Congressional District, greets voters at a polling place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, October 31, 2020. Credit: Brian Blanco - AFP

Other Jewish newcomers to the House: North Carolina’s Kathy Manning, a former immigration attorney active in the Jewish community – she was the first woman to chair the board of the Jewish Federations of North America – and Jake Auchincloss, a Jewish ex-Marine from Newton, Massachusetts who took the seat of Rep. Joseph Kennedy III in the 4th District. Kennedy gave up his House seat to unsuccessfully challenge Sen. Ed Markey in the Massachusetts primary challenge.

Most of the members of the female quartet of Jewish congresswomen who joined the House in 2018 appeared headed for a second term Wednesday morning. One of them, Washington’s Kim Schrier, was ahead of Republican Jesse Jensen by a comfortable margin.

The other three, running in swing states, watched the final vote count more nervously overnight Tuesday into Wednesday morning.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who battled rival Paul Junge in a Michigan race that was tight throughout Tuesday night, appeared to emerge victorious, winning 51-47 percent as the vote counting ended in her state. Elaine Luria also looked headed for a win in Virginia’s 2nd District by 50-46 percent, with 88 percent of the vote counted.

In Pennsylvania, with 81 percent of the votes counted, Susan Wild was slightly behind GOP rival Lisa Scheller – also Jewish – 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent. With mail-in returns expected to swing heavily Democratic, Wild was seen as having a chance at pulling off a last-minute victory in their neck-and-neck race.

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