The First Tuesday in November
A Jewish Assessment of the 2018 Mid-Term Elections
By Steven Windmueller
What we Learned on Election Day
Befitting the mood in this country, Jewish voters awoke this morning to a new set of realities. If yesterday’s election told us anything, each party can find reason to claim victory: the Democrats in taking the House, the Republicans in growing their majority in the Senate.
Heavy voter turnout included 18-30 year olds, with a significantly larger voter turn out than 2014, the last mid-term elections. Among them a significant number of younger Jewish voters, including registered “Independents,” who represent a major segment of the Millennial and Generation Z bloc of voters. Many new voters, including younger Jewish ones, cast their first ballot in this election. The “Trump Phenomenon” clearly defined how voters approached the 2018 mid term elections, as many voters saw this as a referendum on the President.
Polling, prior to the election, indicated a higher turnout of voters. In off year elections, the normal rate of voter participation is around 30% of the electorate. In this cycle, the projections suggest a 40% or better response. Among Jews, voting is a more accepted and expected pattern of practice. Even if fewer Jews actually voted in 2016, it was more likely that the normal 85% turnout margin was in play this time around! This would suggest that in close elections yesterday, the Jewish vote remained a significant variable.
In higher density Jewish states, such as California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, where there were some toss-up races, the “Jewish vote” would be seen as an important factor. Both the Senate and Governor’s races in Florida, for example, should provide some interesting data on the role of Jewish voters, once political analysts have time to examine specific trends.
Election outcomes will receive the appropriate political spin by each side. Indeed, Jewish leaders within both parties will offer their respective analysis. Nonetheless, the nation remains divided, as deep policy divisions continue to define this democracy.
The 115th Congress had 22 Jewish House members and 8 United States Senators or 5.6% of those elected to the Congress. The incoming 116th Congress will include a number of additional Jewish Democrats to the House, including Elaine Luria (Va.), Max Rose (NY), Elissa Slotkin (Michigan), Susan Wild (Pa.) and Dean Phillips (Minn.). Two other Jewish candidates, Mike Levin (California) and Kim Schrier (Washington) were leading in their respective races.
What We Knew Going Into this Election
Once again, Jewish donors were prominent on behalf of both political parties and in support of particular candidates and certain high profile races. Well beyond the more high-profile names of Michael Bloomberg and George Soros on the Democratic side and Sheldon Adelson on the part of Republicans, significant Jewish monies were invested in various senate and house races as well as governorships. Beyond individual donors, political action committee monies, such as NORPAC on behalf of pro-Israel candidates, in addition to the RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition), J Street and other interest groups, all have been players in this mid-term campaign. However, the funding put forth in 2018 will pale in comparison to the investment of campaign dollars in preparation for the 2020 presidential race.
If Jewish funders played a significant election role, then so would “Hollywood Jews,” including Sarah Silverman, Billy Eichner, Josh Gad, Amy Schumer, Jason Alexander and a number of others who were actively involved in various campaigns across the country.
As The Washington Post reported, during the 2018 campaign many Jewish Democratic candidates faced a series of anti-Semitic ads, depicting rich Jews seeking to “buy” their elections or other types of traditional anti-Jewish tropes. In another situation, JTA reported “A robocall funded by a white supremacist and anti-Semitic podcasting site targeted Oprah Winfrey and Democratic Georgia candidate for governor Stacey Abrams with racist and anti-Semitic language.”
There were a total of 58 Jewish candidates running in Congressional and various statewide races in this election. Within the House, 18 Democratic incumbents and 18 challengers. Among Republicans, two House incumbents, Lee Zeldin (NY) and David Kustoff (Tenn.) and 14 Jewish challengers. In three House races, there were Jewish candidates facing off against one another. These races include Jerome Nadler against Naomi Levin in New York; Perry Gershon against Lee Zeldin also in New York; and Deborah Wasserman Schultz against Joe Kaufman in Florida. The incumbents won in each of these contests. It should be noted that both Jewish Republican Congressmen (Zeldin and Kustoff) were re-elected.
Women played a major role in this campaign, and this would be true for the Jewish community as well. In 2018 Jewish women incumbents (6) held their House seats. Nine of the Democratic challengers were women, with at least four of them winning seats in the 116th Congress as noted above.
Three Jewish Democratic House members stepped away. Sandy Levin (Michigan) is retiring, as his son, Andy, will replace him, representing Michigan’s 9th Congressional District. Jared Polis left his Colorado seat in order to run for Governor, and Jackie Rosen gave up her Congressional seat in order to run for the Senate in Nevada.
Five Jews were involved in Senate races, three incumbents (Cardin (Md.), Feinstein (Ca.), and Sanders (Vermont), each would be re-elected. Gary Trauner (D) from Wyoming was defeated in his senatorial contest. With the posting of this article no results had been posted in connection with Jackie Rosen’s (D) bid to unseat Dean Heller (R) for the Nevada Senate seat.
Five Jewish Democrats are set to chair key House committees in the new Congress. Three Jewish New York representatives will be chairs: Jerrold Nadler will head the Judiciary Committee, Eliot Engel will chair Foreign Affairs, and Nita Lowey will assume the chairpersonship of the Appropriations Committee. Adam Schiff of California will be in charge of the Intelligence Committee, while John Yarmuth of Kentucky will lead the Budget Committee.
Indeed, several highly problematic candidates went down to defeat including Arthur Jones (R), who identified as a neo-Nazi and Leslie Cockburn (D), who was seen as highly problematic on Israel.
J.B. Pritzker in Illinois and as noted elsewhere, Jared Polis in Colorado were successful in their efforts to win the governorships in their respective states. However, Susan Turnbull (D) was unsuccessful in her bid to win the Maryland Lieutenant Governorship.
Where Do we Go from Here?
Today begins the 2020 Presidential Sweepstakes, as prospective candidates will be stepping forward quickly to garner publicity and funding. Among the more than 20 individuals being rumored as potential presidential contestants, at least three Jewish names appear, Senator Bernie Sanders, Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, and Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York.
As the House of Representatives moves into the Democratic column, the question remains how the two parties will manage legislation over the next two years. Are we likely to see compromise and deal making over such issues as immigration, health care, infrastructure and border security? Or will the 116th Congress represent a two-year period of inaction and partisan deadlock, as both factions await the 2020 presidential outcome?
With the Democratic take-over of the House, Adam Schiff (D), as noted above, will become the Chair of the Intelligence Committee. Are we likely to see a series of investigations in connection with the Trump Administration? Other Jewish House members will also chair key committees including Five Jewish Democrats are set to chair key House committees Jerrold Nadler (Judiciary); Eliot Engel (Foreign Affairs) and John Yarmuth (Budget).
How will the House Democrats stack up on Israel? This election will bring a more diverse, and in some cases hostile position toward the US-Israel relationship. Prior to their election on Tuesday, first-timers Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (NY), Rashida Tliab (Michigan), and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) have publically stated their critical views concerning Israel.
Writing on her Twitter account in May, Ms. Cortez stated that the Israeli army had committed a “massacre” in Gaza. “No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”
While Republicans have attempted to make some of these candidates and their positions on Israel an issue in 2018, it will likely become an even more central question in connection with the 2020 presidential campaign. “Is the Democratic Party still pro-Israel?” will no doubt be a theme that the RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition) will likely raise over the next two years.
During her campaign Rashida Tliab, who won the 13th Congressional District (Michigan), has defined Zionism as separatism and has called for a one state solution with Palestinians being given their full right to return.
Somali-American Ilhan Omar, who will replace Representative Keith Ellenson in the Congress, offered the following comments about Israel’s actions against Hamas in a 2012 twitter: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
Yet, it may be the governors’ races where Democrats felt particular frustration in failing to pick up more of these key battleground states. As the country prepares to go through its population census (2020-21), state houses and governors will ultimately have a lot to say on the redistricting process that will follow.
In light of the Democratic House victories in a number of suburban districts, there will be a renewed focus for 2020 to explore other opportunities to create winnable seats, especially in larger metropolitan areas. This will be of prime importance to Jewish communities who are identified with such neighborhoods.
What we also know ahead is the Mueller investigation; quiet over these past 60 days, are we likely now to see more indictments and a move to bring this investigation to a close? This will have an impact, as it already has, on the President and members of his administration. Or will we see the President seek to close down the Mueller probe by firing his Attorney General (Sessions) and Deputy Attorney General (Rosenstein)?
The 2018 mid term elections are now history. The results reconfirm the deep partisan divide that defines America’s political landscape. No doubt, the size of the turn out and the voters’ response offered a message to politicians on both sides of the isle that the current political mood remains one of anger and division.
The New Political Realities:
While there is no way to access at this moment, the impact of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, many Jewish voters, and possibly others, went into their polling booths on Tuesday still dealing with the aftermath of this most significant anti-Semitic incident in American history. Did this tragedy activate new voters, and how did it potentially impact Jews in making their political choices?
Potentially the biggest story in 2018 may still be unfolding. In the aftermath of the Trump remake of the Republican Party, where will such Jewish thought leaders and writers including Brad Stephens and Matt Boot find a political home? Unhappy with its white nationalistic rhetoric and anti-immigrant focus, what political pathways are ahead for Jewish Republicans who differ with the President?
Having offered that commentary on the Republican side, one needs to ask a similar question to Jewish Democrats who, in some cases, are increasingly concerned about the progressive wing of their party and more pointedly its anti-Israel, pro-BDS sentiments. Over time, are we likely to see a fundamental political realignment involving disillusioned Jewish Republicans and Democrats? This posits the question, so where do American Jewish activists find a new political base in this current climate?
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Affairs at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.