Pro-Israel groups say new congressional makeup bodes well for bipartisanship

optimistic outlook

New legislators from both parties 'will be joining an overwhelmingly pro-Israel Congress,' said an AIPAC spokesperson

(House Television via AP)

Members of the House of Representatives vote on legislation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 27, 2020.

While Democratic and Republican lawmakers remain deeply divided on many key issues, pro-Israel advocates expressed optimism that the results of this week’s House and Senate elections largely bode well for bipartisanship on at least one matter: support for the Jewish state.

“It is clear from the outcome of the races so far that the elected and reelected senators and representatives from both parties will be joining an overwhelmingly pro-Israel Congress,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told Jewish Insider on Thursday night. “Despite the current profound political polarization, there remains a resolute bipartisan commitment to the U.S.-Israel alliance.”

Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, a grassroots organization that has endorsed both Democrats and Republicans, agreed. 

“As ballots are counted and election results are finalized, one thing remains clear: the U.S.-Israel relationship continues to have strong and deep support in both parties,” Mendelsohn said in an email to JI, citing victories by “emerging pro-Israel champions” like Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), committee leaders such as Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and “long-time champions” including Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

All three candidates faced stiff competition from challengers in opposing parties, as did several other first-term Democratic incumbents considered strong supporters of Israel who appear to have lost their bids for reelection, including New York representatives Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi

Though Democrats had anticipated expanding the congressional majority they achieved in 2018, when a number of moderate candidates flipped traditionally red-leaning districts, Republicans reclaimed at least seven of those seats this cycle. 

Despite the losses, Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, was encouraged by what he viewed as a strong number of pro-Israel representatives heading to Congress next year.

“Would I have rather expanded the Democratic majority?” he told JI in a phone interview. “Of course I would have, but from a pro-Israel point of view, we’re going to have a Democratic caucus that’s very supportive of Israel, and we’re going to continue to have Republicans who are very supportive of Israel. So in that respect, we’ll see bipartisanship continue.”

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, added her belief that, even with some setbacks, the Democratic caucus was in a strong position on Israel. “There’s overwhelming support of Israel,” she said, “starting with our leadership on down, including many freshman members who were just reelected.”

Nevertheless, the spate of Democratic upsets has created tension within the party. In a caucus call on Thursday, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), who only narrowly emerged victorious in a tight race against a formidable Republican opponent, described the poor Democratic showing on election night as a “failure” in a profanity-laden tirade, arguing that the party has failed to adequately counter attack ads.

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Spanberger said in a recording released by The Washington Post. “Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter, and we lost good members because of that.”

Spanberger’s point may resonate most deeply in Miami-Dade County, where two pro-Israel Democratic congresswomen, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, were unseated in part due to their Republican opponents’ persistent efforts to tie them to socialism in districts with large populations of Cuban-Americans, many of whom remember Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

A fear of socialism is also believed to have hindered Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s shot at picking up Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Trump carried the state by more than 3 percentage points on Tuesday night, thanks in part to a strong showing in Miami-Dade County, which was viewed as a dependable Democratic stronghold.

Democratic campaign strategist Hank Sheinkopf suggested that moderate candidates were also handicapped because voters may have associated the Democratic Party with the recent summer of unrest in which mass protests against police brutality swept the nation. 

“Maybe the progressive argument was too close to the violence people saw in the streets,” he told JI. 

While some progressives were elected to Congress this cycle in safe blue districts, left-leaning candidates who were hoping to unseat Republicans failed to make inroads. Kara Eastman, a candidate in Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district backed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, was viewed as a strong contender against Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), but lost by nearly five points.

Gregory Petrow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said that Eastman’s defeat wasn’t surprising in a district whose general election voters tend to hold views that are more moderate than those espoused by Eastman, who supported Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. 

“She’s unapologetic about her very liberal views, and so she is very out of step with the district,” he told JI. Biden carried the district, picking up its one electoral vote, which went to President Donald Trump in 2016.

Experts believe that Democrats in swing districts may have suffered because Trump’s name was on the ballot this cycle, unlike in 2018 — a dynamic that possibly influenced straight-Republican voting. 

But some say Democrats were too complacent in a handful of tight election races. Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC), a Blue Dog Democrat who flipped South Carolina’s historically conservative 1st congressional district two years ago, lost by one point to Republican Nancy Mace, despite being seen as a strong favorite to retain the seat.

“He got away from grassroots campaigning,” Anton Gunn, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, told JI. “Nancy Mace and her supporters knocked on my door three times. I didn’t get one canvasser from Cunningham’s campaign. The Democrats across the board didn’t do much direct voter contact.”

According to Joel Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, the moderate Democrats who prevailed on Tuesday were, in large part, House members with national security backgrounds who made the argument that they could work in a bipartisan manner, including Luria, Spanberger and Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ).

Rubin, who served as director of Jewish outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) 2020 presidential campaign, said that despite the losses, he saw it as a “good sign” that the Democratic candidates who prevailed on Tuesday were in favor of bipartisanship. 

“Clearly it worked for a number of them and they actually did well in the numbers,” he told JI, adding that, for those who are able to work across parties and within their different constituencies, “there’s going to be a real opportunity for those of us who can effectively engage the diverse segments of the pro-Israel community.”

Soifer was equally sanguine in her appraisal of the new Congress and the approach she believes it will take to the Jewish state. 

“When it comes to the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” she said, “this election will be very good for Israel.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.