What would a partisan shift in control of the Senate mean for Jewish issues?
As the Republican party pushes to retake the majority of the U.S. Senate in the upcoming November midterm elections, which would give it control of both houses of Congress, 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 have been historically 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. This was reversed in President Barack Obama’s first midterm election cycle in 2010, when Republicans—surging from the energy of the Tea Party and criticism of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)—regained control of the House.
The past six years have seen increased partisanship, a government shutdown, and continuously less major legislation passing in Congress. With the status quo, the difficulties Obama has faced in his dealings with the legislative branch are 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 earlier this year when former Sen. Max Baucus 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 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), Rep. Steve Daines (R), is running for the 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.
In West Virginia, 77-year-old Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) announced in January 2013 that he would not seek re-election. In the race for the open seat, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) leads her opponent 53-34 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics projection. In 2012, Romney won the state, 62-36 percent.
One of the most likely Republican pickups is in South Dakota. Last year, Sen. Tim Johnson (D) announced his retirement. The state’s current governor, Mike Rounds (R), 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 race in Louisiana, where embattled incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is facing two GOP challengers. Despite having his vote split by another Republican candidate in Louisiana’s unusual open election, Sixth District Congressman Bill Cassidy (R) leads Landrieu in most polls.
Adding to Democrats’ headaches, there are six Senate seats held by Democrats that are either open seats or occupied by a weak incumbent. These include 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 the Senate could spell a change in foreign and domestic policies important to Jews. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) are 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,” Matthew Brooks, executive director of the RJC and the Jewish Policy Center think tank, told JNS.org. “[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 bi-partisan 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 Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn with retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s (R) seat.
“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,” Moline told JNS.org. “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 healthcare. I think you will find problematic approaches to religion in government from a Jewish perspective. I think that initiatives to create equal pay for equal work and to raise the minimum wage would be frustrated by a philosophy by an economy 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 or lean Democrat, compared to 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, including with regards to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
“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.
Brooks, meanwhile, said Republican legislators have “demonstrated throughout the president’s term a willingness to work with the president.”
“The question is how much the White House is going to want to engage in partnership and bipartisan work with a Republican House and Senate,” he said. “That remains to be seen. It would behoove the president, at a point where his political standing is at an all-time low for his presidency... to work with the Republicans to get important things done for the country.”