With the Republican Party pushing to retake control of the Senate in the upcoming November elections, a partisan shift in power may significantly affect a broad range of foreign policy and domestic social issues that are prioritized by American Jews.
Midterm elections in the Senate and House of Representatives historically have been difficult for the party holding the presidency. Democrats have held the Senate since public disapproval with the administration of President George W. Bush led to a Democratic sweep of both houses in 2006. Similar backlash against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010 led to a GOP takeover of the House.
The past six years of the split Congress have seen increased partisanship, a government shutdown and an ever-drying supply of major legislation passing the legislature. With the status quo, the obstructionism Obama faces from Capitol Hill is unlikely to improve in his last two years as president.
Currently, the Senate includes 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans, and the GOP will need to pick up at least six seats to obtain a majority.
In Montana, Sen. John Walsh, a brigadier general in the Montana National Guard, was nominated by the state’s Democratic governor to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Max Baucus, who was tapped by Obama to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. But Walsh’s term was short-lived, as allegations came to light that he had plagiarized a large part of a research paper that was required for his advancement to general officer ranks. Walsh admitted to the plagiarism and ended his campaign, creating an open seat.
Montana’s at-large congressman (the state’s population only entitles it to one member in the House), Republican Rep. Steve Daines, is running for the Senate seat and is seen as an almost guaranteed winner in a state that Mitt Romney won by 13 percentage points in the 2012 presidential election. He faces Democrat Amanda Curtis on Nov. 4.
In West Virginia, 77-year-old Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller announced in January 2013 that he would not seek re-election. In the race for his open seat, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito leads her opponent, Democrat Natalie Tennant, 53 percent to 34 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics projection. In 2012, Romney won the state, 62 percent to 36 percent.
One of the most likely Republican pickups is in South Dakota. Last year, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement. The state’s current governor, Republican Mike Rounds, easily defeated his primary opponents and has a wide lead over his Democratic opponent, businessman Rick Weiland.
Another important gain for Republicans would be the hotly contested Senate seat in Louisiana, where embattled incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu is facing two GOP challengers. Des-pite having his vote split by another Republican candidate in Louisiana’s unusual open election, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-District 6) leads Landrieu in most polls.
All told, there are six Senate seats currently held by Democrats that are either open seats or occupied by a weak incumbent. These include contests in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Polling in these states is too close to call, though most polls slightly lean Republican.
Although Jewish voters are unlikely to make a major difference in any of the contested races, a shift to Republican control in the Senate is sure to impact Jewish policy priorities. The Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council are thus both helping their parties get out the vote.
“I think there’s no question that support for Israel will, I think, increase dramatically with the Republican leadership in the Senate,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the RJC and the Jewish Policy Center think tank. “[This is] mostly because so much of what [Senate] Majority Leader Harry Reid has been doing is bottling up critical legislation, including pressuring members of his own party to not support bipartisan legislation for enhanced sanctions on Iran.
“I think it will be very clear that a top priority of the Republicans, if we get the Senate, would be to follow the lead of the House, which has already passed enhanced sanctions, and give the opportunity for Sen. [Mark] Kirk (R-Ill.) and [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert] Menendez (D-N.J.) to get their critical legislation through the Senate and to the president,” Brooks added.
Brooks also pointed to the August battle in the Senate to pass emergency funding for Israel to replenish the Iron Dome missile defense system’s supply of interceptor rockets. Though the funding passed unanimously minutes before the Senate “adjourned for its August recess, Democrats included the Iron Dome assistance in a broader emergency appropriations bill that included funds for fighting fires in Oregon as well as funding requested by Obama to handle the influx of illegal immigrants from Central America. At the time, Republicans called for a separate bill for Iron Dome funding.
“Those kind of shenanigans, at a time when Israel was in the middle of a critical battle in which they needed to have strong support from America, [prove that] Majority Leader Reid would rather have played domestic politics than help Israel,” said Brooks. “In the end we got there, but that kind of stuff, I think, is not going to happen when it’s [the job of] Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.), who was one of the strong voices pushing Harry Reid to free up the $250 million emergency appropriation [for the Iron Dome].”
Rabbi Jack Moline, executive director of the NJDC, does not believe Republicans will take control of the Senate, citing races in states such as Georgia, where Democrats are relying on an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort among a growing demographic of young and non-white voters to deliver the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss to Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn.
“I think bicameral Republican [majorities] in Congress will be problematic for the social issues that are of concern to 70 percent of the Jewish community,” said Moline. “I think it’s a pretty fair bet that you will see attempts to stymie meaningful immigration reform, you’ll see attempts to further restrict the ability for women to control their own health care.
“I think you will find problematic approaches to religion in government from a Jewish perspective,” he added. “I think that initiatives to create equal pay for equal work and to raise the minimum wage would be frustrated by a philosophy … that is more identified with the Republicans than the Democrats.”
Moline noted that the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey of U.S. Jews showed that 70 percent of respondents still identify as or lean Democrat compared with only 22 percent identifying or learning Republican.
Unlike Brooks, Moline does not see a shift in control of the Senate changing American foreign policy in the Middle East.
“I think there will probably be some tension between the president and the Senate over his pursuit of certain foreign policy objectives, but I don’t think that’s any different from the way things are now,” he said.