For GOP hopefuls, Israel is the new Iowa

After the recent round of intense fighting between Israel and Hamas, several Republican politicians have visited Israel or announced plans to do so. One of the first to announce travel plans was Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who arrived in Israel days after a cease-fire was announced. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited on official congressional delegations. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Israel last week for a goodbye party for the head of Mossad and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced plans to visit with a Christians United for Israel delegation — even though neither of them currently holds public office.

It’s still two and a half years before any voters will head to the polls for the 2024 primaries, but potential candidates — like Cruz, Pompeo and Haley, who are all seen as likely 2024 Republican presidential contenders — are often trying to position themselves for the next race. Pompeo, for instance, was spotted in Iowa in March. 

“I think for Republicans in particular, visiting Israel and being supportive of Israel has now become a requirement,” said Elliott Abrams, currently a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations who served in diplomatic roles in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump. 

But Abrams notes that politicians’ visits to Israel are not a new phenomenon, even if they have increased in recent years. “This is not new, and I think it’s particularly unsurprising right now, because you’ve got political change happening in Israel, because you just had a war, because you have a new American president who’s just setting his policy toward Israel and the Middle East. So it strikes me as pretty normal and predictable.”

Jewish Insider reached out to nearly a dozen Republicans who are considered to be potential 2024 contenders to see whether any of them have plans to visit Israel in the near future. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told JI that they have no such plans, though all of them have traveled to Israel in the past. 

Spokespeople for Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Ben Sasse (R-NE); South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott; former Vice President Mike Pence; and former President Donald Trump did not respond when asked whether they plan to travel to Israel. 

Presidential candidates have a history of traveling to Israel while campaigning, although such visits usually occur much closer to an election. The late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) toured Israel on a Senate “fact-finding” delegation in March 2008 during the Republican primaries. A few months later, after clinching the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama visited the country for the first time. Now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the Republican who ran against Obama four years later, visited Israel in July 2012. Trump was scheduled to travel to Israel as a candidate in 2015, but canceled the trip after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly criticized Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. 

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) flank Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Jerusalem.

President Joe Biden did not travel internationally during the 2020 campaign — most of his general election campaigning took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but he has visited the country on several other occasions, including several times as vice president. 

Many lawmakers from both parties have visited Israel on congressional delegations or on biennial trips for freshman lawmakers run by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. Pressure from other pro-Israel groups has also highlighted the political importance of these trips. “I think that as America’s strongest ally in the region and one of our closest allies in the world, elected officials who are able should make an effort to visit Israel,” Pastor John Hagee, the founder and chairman of CUFI, told JI. 

Republican visits to Israel might also be linked to the 2022 midterms, when Republicans will seek to regain control of the House and Senate. “It’s going to be very important for the Republicans to recapture both houses of Congress in 2022,” said Marc Zell, an American attorney who lives in Israel and is the chairman of the Israel chapter of Republicans Abroad. “I think we have a really good chance of doing that, and Israel is part of the formula that many candidates will adopt as they prepare for 2022.”

Support for the U.S.-Israel alliance has become a key tenet of Republican campaigns at both the federal and state levels in recent years. “As a state governor, Gov. DeSantis is not in the same position to enact foreign policy as, say, U.S. senators,” his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, told JI, but she noted that his “first trip abroad as governor, in 2019, was to Israel for a historic business-development mission to promote stronger ties between Florida and Israel.” 

This trend is not new. Governors and state officials have traveled to Israel on trade missions for decades. Tim Pawlenty, a former Republican governor of Minnesota, traveled to Israel on a 2008 trade mission ahead of a possible presidential run. But the first Minnesota governor to travel to Israel, Arne Carlson, had done so 15 years prior, in 1993. 

One thing that has changed in recent years is the growing affinity between Republican lawmakers and Netanyahu, who has cultivated close relationships with Republicans in the U.S. Netanyahu welcomed Trump to Israel in May 2017 on the president’s first foreign trip while in office, and in early 2020, Netanyahu referred to Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” 

With a new Israeli coalition set to take control from Netanyahu in the Knesset, Zell suggested that Republican support for the country might falter. Mike Evans, a prominent evangelical Christian, said at a Monday press conference that his followers would “go into the opposition” with Netanyahu rather than support Israel’s potential new government. 

Republican 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney visits the Western Wall on July 29, 2012 in Jerusalem’s old city, Israel.

“I’m not sure that we’re going to be seeing the same frequency of visits by Republican legislators and party leaders in the event that the [Naftali] Bennett-[Yair] Lapid government actually is sworn in,” Zell noted. “They might come to try to keep Israel in line with what Republicans consider proper U.S. policy, or they may stay away because they don’t want to have any friction with the new government on the issues where this new government may be playing up to the Biden administration.”

However, there is no evidence that this view has been adopted by any prominent American lawmakers. While visiting Israel last week, Sen. Graham stressed that U.S. support for Israel is not contingent upon who governs the country. “No matter who they select to run the government here in Israel, American will be in your camp,” Graham said at the press conference. “If a new government is formed, the relationship will stay the same between us and Israel.”

Recent Republican travel to Israel could also stem from a desire to signal politicians’ opposition to Biden’s policies in the region. Rather than relating directly to any political campaigns, “I think it has more to do with the critique of the current administration’s foreign policy,” Zell explained. 

This might also explain why Democratic senators have not traveled to Israel since the conflict: A number of senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, have already done so. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) visited the Middle East in early May, before the fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas. Coons visited the UAE to discuss nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Murphy stopped in Oman, Jordan and Qatar to discuss the war in Yemen.

Ultimately, the reason candidates visit Israel is not to influence policy, which many can’t yet do. It “gives you the opportunity, when you’re writing an op-ed or making a speech, to say, ‘I stood there across from Hamas-ruled Gaza,’ or, ‘I could see from the U.N. observation post Hamas 1000 yards away,’” Abrams said.

The second coming of Darrell Issa

After a brief spell in the political wilderness, Darrell Issa, the former longtime California congressman and car alarm magnate, is now preparing to rejoin his Republican colleagues in the House — and he wants to make clear that he hasn’t gotten rusty in the interim. 

“I’m just a little bit more refreshed,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday.

The past two years have been unusually sedate for the 67-year-old Issa, who established a reputation as one of the Obama administration’s most dedicated adversaries during his combative tenure chairing the House Oversight Committee, where he led the Benghazi investigation. In 2018, however, he gave up the fight, relinquishing his seat in California’s 49th congressional district when it looked as if he would lose to a Democrat — ending a nearly two-decade run in the House.

Issa had set his sights on the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, thanks to an appointment from President Donald Trump in 2018. But his nomination was stonewalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) over an FBI background check, and he was never confirmed. “I think Bob Menendez was just looking to get a pound of revenge,” Issa speculated in an interview with JI last March. 

If Issa is still sore about losing the post, he also sought to convey the impression that he had by no means been defanged. “I was supposed to have a hearing, and Sen. Menendez blew up the hearing,” he said on Friday afternoon. “I went back to the White House the following day and told the president I thought I should switch to holding this seat for my party, and he agreed.”

The congressman is poised to represent the historically conservative 50th district of California, which includes a large swath of San Diego County. Issa was accused of opportunism as he campaigned in a district that sits adjacent to his old one, but he said his priorities have always remained the same and rejected the notion that congressional lines had much meaning. 

“The idea that you represent some very fine lines drawn by some gerrymandering authority, I think, just wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said. “I think anyone would say, wait a second, you represent your country first, your state second and a region third.”

Despite polling that suggested Issa would have a close race, he prevailed over his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, by more than eight percentage points in the November 3 election.

Issa, for his part, said he never doubted that he would defeat Campa-Najjar — who told JI that he is now planning to write a book about his complex relationship to his late Palestinian grandfather’s alleged involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But Issa nevertheless acknowledged that he had to fight for the seat after a contentious primary battle that hobbled him leading into the general election.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, and I’m not, to know that when $5 million is spent bashing you in the primary you have some work to do in the general to fix that,” he said, alluding in part to an attack ad from American Unity PAC that took aim at some of his past statements on Israel. “It’s not only not my first rodeo,” he added, “but it’s not the first time the bull threw me either.”

The general election battle was also strained as Issa and Campa-Najjar, both of Arab descent, took turns attacking one another over, among other things, their fealty to Israel — even though, according to questionnaires solicited by JI, they hold largely the same views when it comes to the Jewish state. 

While Issa, whose paternal grandfather was born in Lebanon, accused his opponent without evidence of being against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Campa-Najjar charged that Issa had called Israel an “apartheid state” and expressed sympathy for Hezbollah. 

Issa has denied the allegations, noting that some of his comments have been taken out of context. “Whether someone agrees with me or not, I have two things I’m consistent about,” he said. “I’m an unapologetic supporter of Israel, and I’m willing to go and meet with any leader any time to be better educated without necessarily agreeing with them, but at least hearing them out.” 

During his time in Congress, Issa noted, he met with Muammar Gaddafi as well as Yasser Arafat and Bashar al-Assad. “I’m not afraid to listen to people that I disagree with in the hopes that they will listen to me and their ways will be changed.”

It was such an attitude, Issa believes, that allowed the Trump administration to broker historic normalization deals with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, which he supports enthusiastically. “For Jared Kushner and the rest of the team,” he said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, “it happened because they believed in it and because they were willing to go anywhere, meet with anyone, to try to achieve it.”

Issa supports a two-state solution and claims that he is “perfectly willing” to engage in good faith with the Palestinian Authority, but he is doubtful that he will be able to do that in the immediate future. “I view these normalizations as an opportunity for the Palestinians to say we would like to normalize relations, let’s sit down and really make that effort anew, and do it sooner rather than later,” he said. “But so far, I see no movement.”

He amended his remark by pointing out that he has seen “a lot of good people within the Palestinian community who want to go a different way.” But, he added, “I don’t see a Palestinian Authority that’s geared to do it, and obviously, as long as Hamas is funded, and well-funded, by Iran, and Hezbollah is still a reality, I’m not sure where we go except to have those conversations and tell them that these are the changes that are needed if they’re going to enjoy what they tell us is their goal.”

President Donald Trump greets Rep. Darrell Issa at a White House event on August 14, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Though he was initially cold to Trump at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, Issa has since embraced the president wholeheartedly (and the feeling is apparently mutual). In conversation with JI, he singled out Trump’s approach to Israel for praise, commending his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

“President after president promised to move the embassy to the building we built for that purpose,” Issa said. “Even though it was called a consulate, that building was built to be the embassy just waiting for a president to issue the order.”

Issa refused to acknowledge that Trump had lost the election, even as the president’s increasingly desperate legal efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters have been struck down in the courts and condemned by a smattering of Republican leaders. 

“We don’t know the outcome of the legal battles, so I don’t want to be presumptuous beyond what’s fair, but I think the one thing that we can know is that President Trump has grown the party,” Issa said, citing the president’s strong showing with Latino voters this cycle. “He’s given us an opportunity to continue reaching out to people who became Trump voters.”

Still, Issa seemed willing to allow for the possibility that Trump wouldn’t be in the White House next term. “I would be much happier if President Trump prevails in these legal challenges,” Issa said, “but for a moment, assuming he didn’t, then our job is to work with the president but not to work for the president.”

One issue on which he isn’t willing to budge is the Iran nuclear deal. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to return to the agreement brokered by his old boss, former President Barack Obama, and which Trump abandoned in 2018. But Issa, who described Iran as “an existential threat to the region,” said that he would fight to keep the United States out of it. 

“The undoing of that agreement, and the successes based on a much closer relationship with Israel and asking for and getting Arab nations to come to the table, has worked,” he said. “So, with all due respect if Biden becomes president, the failed policies of President Obama should not be considered for a return. I mean, they’re just that, they’re proven to have failed, versus the policies that have gotten us a lot further down the peace trail.”

That isn’t to say he doesn’t envision reaching across the aisle on occasion. Issa expressed admiration for some Democratic members of his California congressional delegation, including Reps. Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Scott Peters (D-CA). On foreign affairs, he said, “Juan and I see eye-to-eye with some frequency, and Scott and I have done immigration reform and other issues together.”

On the Republican side, Issa said he is looking forward to reengaging with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as well as minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). “They early on endorsed me and supported me,” Issa said, “and that makes a difference when it’s not a close call in the beginning.”

Issa told JI that the leading Republicans on the three House committees he previously sat on — including judiciary, oversight and foreign affairs — have all asked him back. “The intent,” he said, summarizing his approach as he readies himself for a new term in Congress, “is to return to the committees of jurisdiction I’ve historically been involved with and continue a lot of the work that I was doing on transparency.”

“I always tell people, the idea that you’re going to do something new after 18 years — the only thing new is that two years of sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be confirmed, gave me a perspective,” he said. “But it’s not going to change the basic goals that I had when I was in Congress.”

Can Dan Sullivan hang on in the tightening Alaska Senate race?

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) spent a good portion of the five-week August Senate recess driving through Alaska and meeting with voters in an effort to boost his profile ahead of his November reelection battle. “I’ve been getting out with my wife,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider as he drove north from Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley on a recent September afternoon.

“We’ve covered well over 1,000 miles in my truck,” added Sullivan, estimating that he had interacted with approximately 2,000 voters at outdoor campaign events and rallies during his peregrinations through Alaska. “We were all over the state.”

The Republican senator is well aware that he needs to work hard to defend his seat this cycle. In 2014, the first-time candidate narrowly defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, by just three points. 

Now, the roles have been reversed as Sullivan prepares to go up against a formidable challenger, Al Gross, an independent allied with Democratic Party leaders who has picked up traction in the state.

Though polls from June and July suggested that Sullivan, 55, was comfortably ahead of Gross, recent numbers have indicated that the race may be tightening. A Public Policy Polling survey, conducted in late August, found that Sullivan and Gross — both of whom have raked in millions of dollars in campaign donations — were tied with 43% of the vote.

The race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks as the two candidates have traded barbs in an ongoing series of attack ads. A possible Supreme Court nomination and an in-state mining scandal have added to the high stakes in a contest that is drawing national media attention as well as significant outside spending.

Gross has run a strong campaign, experts say, casting himself as a political outsider in a state that favors them. The 57-year-old Jewish doctor has sought to play up his background as a commercial fisherman and gold prospector. Gross, who was born and raised in Alaska, is also an outsider of another sort: He was the first to have a bar mitzvah in the state’s southeastern portion. (His parents flew in a rabbi for the ceremony.) 

But despite his status as an independent, the playing field is still unfavorable to Gross in historically red Alaska, whose top elected officials are currently all Republicans. 

Gross’s odds further decreased last week when the Alaska Supreme Court rejected an appeal to reprint ballots to include candidates’ party affiliations and not only list how they got elected — meaning Gross, who ran in the Democratic primary, will likely be identified as a Democratic nominee rather than as an independent, which could diminish his prospects at the polls.

Sen. Dan Sullivan speaks to constituents. (Courtesy)

“Gross is fighting well and will likely capture a portion of the vote, but I have yet to see a key indicator that he is likely to win,” Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told JI. “Sullivan just hasn’t had any large missteps that would turn his base against him or cause new folks to vote for him rather than his competition.”

Sullivan remains confident that he can win over voters, accusing his opponent of hoodwinking Alaskans by not adhering to any party affiliation as he campaigns for office. 

“He’s telling people he’s an independent, but then he’s caught on a national fundraiser telling people that he’s going to caucus with the Democrats,” Sullivan scoffed, implying that Gross was only running as an independent because it was politically expedient. “His values are to the left.”

In the interview with JI, Sullivan took aim at his opponent’s healthcare proposals — Gross supports a public option for Medicare — but reserved his harshest criticism for Gross’s foreign policy views, particularly on Iran. 

Gross opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement and believes the United States should be brought back into compliance with the deal.

“I saw my opponent said he thought it was bad that we pulled out,” Sullivan said, alluding to a June interview with JI in which Gross expressed his disapproval of Trump’s abandonment of the deal. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

Sullivan declared that one of the primary reasons he decided to run for Senate in 2014 was because he so strongly disapproved of former President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran. 

“The appeasement that was going on with regard to Iran was shocking, it was dangerous, and it was something that I thought was not only bad for America but very bad for our most important ally in the Middle East — and that’s Israel,”  Sullivan told JI. 

Sullivan, who has not travelled to Israel during his time as a senator, touts his record when it comes to the Jewish state. He is, along with the majority of Senate members, a co-sponsor of a proposed bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would give states permission to require that companies pledge not to boycott Israel. Sullivan said he signed on to the bill because he regards the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as part of a rising tide of antisemitism in the U.S.

“Part of the reason I was one of the original cosponsors of that was to show that, at least from the Congress’s perspective, we don’t find that acceptable,” he said, adding his disagreement that the act would infringe on free-speech rights. “I think it’s important to send a signal from the Congress of the United States that those movements on boycotting Israel are completely unacceptable.”

Dan Sullivan picture

Sullivan and his wife, Julie. (Courtesy)

The first-term senator previously worked as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and as Alaska’s attorney general. Before that, the Ohio-born Republican served as an assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Sullivan, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, is now a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.

“When I got to the Senate, I didn’t need to be educated on the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” Sullivan said. “I also certainly didn’t need to be educated on the threat that the terrorist regime in Tehran posed to Israel and posed to the United States.”

His experience in the State Department, where he worked from 2006 to 2009, molded his view of international relations and diplomacy. 

During that time, he told JI, he helped push for Israel’s inclusion in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and traveled the globe as part of an effort to convince America’s allies, including France, Germany, Norway and Japan, to divest from the Iranian oil and gas sector.

Sullivan commended Trump’s actions with regard to Iran, singling out his decision to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whom the senator regarded as a grave threat to the security of American troops in the Middle East. 

“As soon as I got to the Senate, I started giving speeches about this guy Soleimani,” Sullivan said. “I’ve talked to the president numerous times about him. I’ve talked to the senior military. What the United States did with regard to the strike against Soleimani is that we reestablished deterrence,” Sullivan added. “This is really hard.”

Sullivan believes Trump’s tough posture toward Iran has helped the United States in brokering recent agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. 

Sullivan on the campaign trail. (Courtesy)

“Most of this, of course, is driven by the recognition that the biggest threat in the region, whether it’s to Israel, or to Saudi Arabia, or to the UAE, is Iran,” Sullivan said. “The Trump administration has been very steady and focused on this in a way that has dramatically shifted the narrative,” he told JI, “in a way that, I think, takes advantage of the changing circumstances on the ground in a really important way.”

Sullivan added his concern that Trump’s diplomatic achievements would be in jeopardy if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — who has said he will reenter the Iran nuclear deal — is elected in November. “He would be undermining this progress,” Sullivan said. 

“This is what is at stake with regard to this election,” the senator concluded.

Sullivan can at least remain hopeful that he will hold onto his seat even if Trump isn’t reelected, though he told JI that he is operating on the assumption that he needs to run an aggressive campaign nonetheless. 

“Alaska, from my perspective, is a lot more purple than red,” Sullivan said. 

Ivan Moore, a veteran pollster who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage, agreed with Sullivan’s appraisal of the state’s political makeup. 

“I think he’s still the favorite, but there is the potential for an upset,” said Moore, adding that the state has been trending purple in recent years as young transplants who aren’t interested in working in the energy sector move to the state.

While Sullivan appears somewhat vulnerable this cycle, Moore predicted that he would hold onto his seat. But whether that will be the case six years from now remains to be seen.

“The days when a Republican could run a weak campaign, not really pay much attention to it and still win by 10 or 15 points,” Moore told JI, “are kind of a thing of the past.”

Twenty-six Republicans sign on to Duncan’s letter on Ukraine pilgrimage

Twenty-six Republican members of Congress signed onto Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-SC) letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the State Department to pressure the government of Ukraine to allow Jewish pilgrims to visit the town of Uman for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

The announcement of the final list of signatories comes after a two-day extension of the signing deadline. Among the letter’s signatories are House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) andRep. Steve King (R-IA) — who was sidelined within the Republican caucus after controversial comments regarding white supremacy. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and David Kustoff (R-TN), the only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, also signed onto the letter.

Duncan told Jewish Insider that he took up the pilgrims’ cause out of a desire to protect religious freedom.

“I have a deep respect for all people of faith, and I believe Ukraine had good intentions in crafting their travel restrictions,” he said in a statement. “But I also believe they need to find creative ways to accommodate people of faith in a safe and commonsense manner. Governments don’t have to choose between allowing religious expression and public safety, and believe this letter makes it clear that common sense steps can be taken to achieve both goals.”

“Even during times of uncertainty, governments should continue to allow maximum flexibility for religious expression and practice,” he added.

None of the other signatories responded to requests for comment.

The political consulting firm Stonington Global had circulated the letter around Capitol Hill to gather additional signatures from other members of Congress. 

Stonington founder and Republican lobbyist Nick Muzin has deep ties to South Carolina, Duncan’s home state.

Muzin, an Orthodox Jew, previously served as a policy advisor and chief of staff for Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), beginning more than a decade ago when the senator was a congressional candidate. Muzin advised Scott during his tenure in the House, and stayed with him after his appointment to the Senate in 2013. Muzin was also previously married to Andrea Zucker, whose mother, Intertech Group CEO Anita Zucker, is the wealthiest individual in the state of South Carolina.

“This is a religious freedom issue, and Jeff Duncan has always been a champion of religious freedom and Judeo-Christian values,” Muzin explained to JI. 

Muzin dismissed health concerns raised by Ukrainian and Israeli government officials over this year’s pilgrimage.

“These travelers have offered to adhere to every health precaution that others who have been granted exemptions by the Ukrainian government are taking, so we hope that even in these challenging times, the Ukrainian government will respect American citizens’ right to worship,” he said.

The next Senator Coleman from Minnesota

Julia Coleman hasn’t been involved in campus advocacy for a number of years now. But Coleman still carries many of the lessons she learned during her time working as a field representative for the Leadership Institute, a conservative youth organizing group, touring colleges in the mid-Atlantic region.

“One of our demonstrations was we would take a SodaStream and we would set up a little booth,” Coleman recalled in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, referring to the popular soda machine, which is headquartered in Israel and is a frequent target of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns. “While we’re showing them this amazing apparatus, we would talk about the innovations coming out of Israel and the importance of having a free, democratic state in the Middle East and protecting Israel. And it opened up a lot of students’ eyes.”

Such discussions were, incidentally, also good practice for Coleman in her personal and political future as a young Republican. She is now the daughter-in-law of Norm Coleman, the former Minnesota senator and current chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “You can’t be in my home and not have those conversations,” the former senator said matter-of-factly in a phone conversation with JI. 

Now that she is vying to represent Minnesota’s 47th district in the state Senate, Coleman — who currently serves as a city council member in Chanhassen, a suburb of Minneapolis — is acutely aware that some of the same issues she faced on campuses will also be present in higher office. Coleman defeated Victoria Mayor Tom Funk in the 47th district Republican primary in August.

She says she is ready for the challenge. “I would like to let the Jewish community in Minnesota know that they do have an ally in me,” she said.

Coleman, 28, says she entered the race to replace Scott Jensen, a Republican retiring at the end of his term, because she believes the state has been co-opted by progressives like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the freshman congresswoman who is highly critical of Israel and has been accused of antisemitism. “She definitely has yanked that entire party further left and has really created quite a radical base here in Minnesota,” Coleman declared weeks after Omar’s resounding primary victory over a more moderate challenger

Julia Coleman

Julia Coleman during her swearing-in ceremony.

“I will fight antisemitism, whether it’s coming from Ilhan or members of the state legislature or the public, whether it’s coming from movements like BDS,” promised Coleman, who characterizes herself as “a strong, Zionist, pro-Israel supporter.”

It may seem, at first glance, that a down-ballot candidate such as Coleman wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to effect change at the state level. But her father-in-law avers that it is just as important to have pro-Israel candidates locally as it is to have them in Congress. 

“To have somebody who, in their core, understands the importance of these issues, I think, really makes a difference because the battles are being fought on the local level,” he said. 

Dan Rosen, a lawyer in Minneapolis who is involved in pro-Israel causes at the state and national levels, agreed. “Even here in Minnesota, the Jewish community has to be on its guard,” he told JI. “Anti-Israel advocates are active at our capitol, where pro-Israel legislators have passed anti-BDS legislation and thwarted efforts to force divestment from Israel. Accordingly, we are grateful when legislative candidates, like Julia, are committed to fighting those that would single out Jewish and pro-Israel interests for attack.”

Coleman, who was raised Catholic, has developed a strong affinity for Judaism since she married Jacob Coleman — an account executive at a Minneapolis insurance company and a volunteer fireman in Chanhassen — in 2018. They have decided to raise their 10-month-old son, Adam, in both religious traditions, just as Jacob, whose mother is Catholic, grew up.

“We’ll do Christmas and Hanukkah, we’ll do Easter and Passover,” she said, “and it has helped me to not only appreciate the Jewish people and their faith, but also it has taught me so much about my own because we share that Old Testament. I think that it is so important for Christians to really get to know their Jewish brothers and sisters and their faith, because it helps us to understand our own even better.”

Julia Coleman

Coleman with her husband, Jacob, a volunteer fireman in Chanhassen.

Coleman said she has learned much about Judaism as well as the U.S.-Israel bond through her relationship with her father-in-law. “He did my first Seder,” she told JI, “and it was just such a beautifully eye-opening experience into the Jewish faith, as well as my own, because that’s part of our background.”

“You learn simply by being around him,” Coleman added, noting that she attended the RJC convention at his behest in 2019. “That was such a great experience. I’ve always been pro-Israel, but to hear the president speak and to get to meet hundreds of people who are Jewish and Israel supporters, and to share why this issue matters to them on a personal level, and to hear Norm speak to them and hear their stories — you learn so much.”

Coleman — who has never been to Israel but wants to visit — was raised in Minnesota. Her father is a Ramsey County deputy sheriff, and her mother is an executive consultant. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and was Miss Minneapolis in 2014. (Her platform, she said, was suicide prevention.) She “gave up” her “crown,” as she jokingly put it, to spend a year with the Leadership Institute, but returned to her home state to work for Charlie Kirk’s conservative nonprofit student organization, Turning Point USA.

“I got kicked off of college campuses more than I care to admit,” she said.

Soon after, she was hired as a reporter and anchor for Alpha News, a partisan media startup in the Gopher State. But Coleman found that being in front of a camera was unfulfilling, so she moved on to a new position as a public relations manager at Medical Alley Association, a trade group advocating on behalf of Minnesota’s health technology community. 

She currently holds that job while serving on the Chanhassen City Council, a position she has occupied since 2018, the same year she married her husband — who five years ago ran for the Senate seat she is gunning for, but lost the Republican endorsement to Jensen.

“My dad was thrilled when I married Norm’s son, because Norm brought the Wild to Minnesota, and my dad is a die-hard Wild fan,” said Coleman, alluding to Minnesota’s professional hockey team. “I don’t think my husband had to put up too hard of a fight to ask for permission, although my dad was on duty and armed when Jake asked for permission, so, brave guy.”

Julia Coleman speaks with sheriff

Coleman sits with her father, a Ramsey County deputy sheriff.

Though Coleman is only two years into her term as a city council member, she believes that she is ready for a promotion to the State Senate. 

“I felt compelled to run in order to preserve the freedoms that I got to grow up with and the opportunities I had,” she said, emphasizing that she takes Omar’s statements personally in large part because of her son.

“My son has Jewish heritage,” she told JI. “I’m just blown away by Ilhan Omar’s rhetoric, and when people think of a female politician from Minnesota, I want them to think about someone who’s pro-Israel and supportive of the Jewish community.”

Support for BDS, Coleman added, has become commonplace among left-leaning politicians in Minnesota, a development she regards as troubling. “It is just antisemitism at its finest,” she told JI.

Coleman, who is all but assured a seat in the solidly conservative district as she goes up against Democrat Addie Miller in November, swats away questions about her ambitions beyond state office. 

“I always say the same thing when I was on council,” she said. “I have to prove I can do a good job here before I’ll even think that far ahead.”

In the meantime, she is looking forward to taking on more substantive issues assuming she is elected to the State Senate — a return of sorts to her days advocating for conservative causes on campuses in her early 20s.

“You really don’t talk about hot button issues on council,” Coleman told JI. “You talk about zoning, you talk about the local levy, the fire department. In the State Senate, issues like BDS will come before me. Issues like abortion and the Second Amendment will come before me. Issues that are going to affect every single Minnesotan will be discussed and debated. And so I do believe that, if elected in November, I will be incredibly blessed to fight for the people of Minnesota and, hopefully, leave behind a state that is better than the one I grew up in for the next generation of Minnesotans.”

Jewish groups condemn conspiracy theorist Marjorie Greene after runoff victory

Controversial congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene appears to be headed for Washington following her victory on Tuesday in the Republican runoff in Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Her win raises concerns among Jewish organizations who have sounded the alarm over her candidacy for months. The district’s overwhelmingly Republican make-up all but ensures that Greene will win the general election in November.

Greene has been a vocal promoter of the QAnon conspiracy theory — which alleges that President Donald Trump is working to take down a network of Democratic politicians and celebrities who practice satanism, pedophilia and cannibalism — and has posted Facebook videos expressing antisemitic, racist and Islamophobic views.

Even after launching her campaign, Greene continued to unapologetically propagate antisemitic conspiracy theories, including falsely accusing Democratic megadonor and Holocaust survivor George Soros of “turning people over to Nazis where they were burned in offices” in a recent television interview. She also dismissed questions about a photo she took with a former Ku Klux Klan leader who described her as a “friend.”

“Ms. Greene has a history of propagating antisemitic disinformation,” Allison Padilla-Goodman, Southern division vice president of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement to Jewish Insider. “ADL previously called on Ms. Greene to disavow her relationship with a prominent white supremacist leader and retract past antisemitic statements. ADL said that ‘failure to do so is a moral failure and unbecoming of someone seeking elected office.’ Ms. Greene’s continued insistence on propagating such antisemitism shows she has decided to double down on hate, which, to say the least, is deeply problematic.”

Republican leaders spoke out against Greene after her Facebook videos surfaced, but only House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) actively worked to boost her opponent, physician John Cowan, frustrating some House Republicans, according to Politico. Scalise, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the National Republican Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

The Republican Jewish Coalition opposed Greene during the runoff and endorsed Cowan.

“We are really proud to have endorsed John Cowan. We do not endorse Greene and we think she is the antithesis of what our party stands for,” RJC communications director Neil Strauss said in a statement to JI. “We can hold our heads up high tonight for standing up to Greene, just like we did when we stood up to [Rep.] Steve King by supporting Randy Feenstra.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he was hopeful that Republican leaders would continue to distance themselves from Greene.

“During the primary campaign, top national Republican leaders in Congress, led by the House Minority Leader, denounced her bigotry with good reason. Some even endorsed her opponent. Yet she will likely be elected to Congress this fall,” Cooper said in a statement to JI.

Cooper called on Republican leaders to marginalize Greene within the Republican caucus as they did with King after he questioned why white supremacy was considered offensive.

“If Ms. Green[e] doesn’t change course,” Cooper said, GOP leaders “may have to apply [the] same standards to her.” 

In Georgia’s deep red 9th district, State Rep. Matt Gurtler, who also refused to apologize for taking a photo with the same former KKK leader, lost his runoff race against gun store owner and Navy veteran Andrew Clyde.

Experts weigh in on the Colorado primary races to watch

As voters cast their ballots in Colorado today following a long primary season, there are a handful of intriguing races to watch as returns trickle in. Those include a heated Senate contest for the Democratic nomination and a House seat in which a Republican incumbent faces a challenger on his right. 

Jewish Insider asked a few experts to weigh in with their thoughts ahead of the big day: Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver who regularly contributes to FiveThirtyEight; Marianne Goodland, chief statehouse reporter at Colorado Politics; and Kyle Saunders, a professor of political science at Colorado State University. Here’s what they had to say.

In the Democratic Senate primary, John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado who briefly ran for president last year, is hoping he can prevail and go on to defeat Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in November. 

There have been some recent setbacks for Hickenlooper — including a couple of racially insensitive gaffes as well as two ethics violations — but Goodland believes the former governor will come out on top in the primary against Andrew Romanoff, a former state politician who is known for mounting somewhat quixotic campaigns against establishment players.

“This is kind of a big nothing,” Goodland told JI of Hickenlooper’s ethics violations, which only resulted in a $2,750 fine for gifts he received as governor. “His biggest mistake wasn’t the ethics violations themselves but his decision to defy a subpoena from the ethics commission and to force them to take him to court to enforce it.”

Goodland said that Romanoff has “done well at times, but the money favors Hickenlooper and so does the support.” The former governor has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has raised $12.6 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings, while securing endorsements from party power brokers like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA). 

Romanoff, for his part, has raked in nearly $3 million — no pittance, but a paltry amount relative to Hickenlooper’s haul.

“That’s just a hard thing for a challenger to take on,” Masket said, “and once in a rare while you’ll see a candidate kind of take on the establishment figure and win but those cases are very rare and it’s not looking like this is going to be one of them.”

More than a week ago, Romanoff’s campaign released internal polling that suggested he was 12 points behind Hickenlooper, putting him in competitive territory. But a new SurveyUSA poll put out Friday indicated that the gap has widened, putting Hickenlooper 30 points ahead of his opponent, with 58% of likely Democratic primary voters opting for the former governor. 

Saunders was skeptical that Hickenlooper would win by such a big margin. “I tend to think that it’s probably a little tighter than that,” he told JI, noting that Hickenlooper’s recent blunders had dented his reputation in the state, though most likely not enough to cost him the nomination. 

If Hickenlooper advances to the general election, Goodland predicted that he will beat Gardner, who has become increasingly vulnerable in a state that has been trending blue in recent years and in which registered Democratic voters outnumber registered Republicans. 

“Gardner is in the most endangered Senate seat in the country,” she told JI.

Another Republican who is facing a challenge — though in this instance from his own party — is Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd congressional district, encompassing most of the state’s Western Slope. In the primary, he is going up against Lauren Boebert, a gun rights activist who is running significantly to the right of her opponent.

Tipton’s race is the only contested primary in the state, as every other congressional candidate is running unopposed, Goodland said. Though she had not seen any polling on the race, she said that Tipton would probably win, observing that the Western Slope was more independent-minded than far-right. 

Tipton has raised about $1.1 million, while Boebert has only pulled in $133,000, according to the FEC.

Saunders seconded Goodland’s prediction. “It’s an odd challenge,” he said. “Tipton will likely survive that on the fundraising side.”

Beyond those races, Goodland — who took a break from poring over campaign finance reports to speak with JI on Monday afternoon — is also looking at a couple of interesting races for the Colorado General Assembly. Of particular note, she said, is a “hotly contested” Republican primary for a State House seat in Jefferson County, which includes the cities of Lakewood and Golden. 

“Tomorrow is going to be fun,” Goodland said. 

African American, an Army vet and a Republican. How will John James fare in Michigan?

Two summers ago, during his first bid for the Senate, John James was backstage at a Ted Nugent concert at the DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston, Michigan, about 40 minutes northwest of Detroit. Following an impassioned introduction in which Nugent described James as a “blood brother” and, more emphatically, a “shit-kicker,” the conservative activist and rock star called the Republican Senate candidate before the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our Constitution is under attack!” James bellowed in a T-shirt and jeans, a black cowboy hat perched atop his head. “Our Second Amendment is under attack, ladies and gentlemen,” the Iraq War veteran-turned-businessman added, to impassioned applause. “I understand what it’s like to keep Americans safe because I’ve done it before, and I’ll tell you, this is a battleground state again,” James said. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “when I get to Washington, we’re going to make our families great again, we’re going to make Michigan great again, and we’re going to make America great again!”

“He got fired up, man,” said David Farbman, CEO of Healthrise, who brought James to the show. “He looked like he had just won a frickin’ NBA championship — he was just going nuts, it was awesome.”

James may now be more reluctant to invoke the rallying cry of the Trump administration at a moment in which the president’s popularity in the swing state is flagging. But he also thinks the political landscape has transformed since 2018, giving him an opening. “This world has changed probably three or four times in 2020,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “I mean, this is not 2018 at all.”


In many ways, this should be James’s moment. The 39-year-old Detroit native is now mounting his second Senate bid after failing to dethrone Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in 2018. This time around, he is trying to unseat first-term Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) at a time when mass protests against systemic racism have brought questions about Black representation to the forefront. James, who is African American, says he is all too familiar with sentiments expressed by demonstrators who have taken to the streets since the police killing of George Floyd a month ago in Minneapolis.

“I grew up listening to NWA and Tupac and now Kendrick Lamar and Donald Glover,” James said, name-checking hip-hop artists who are far removed from any pantheon that would include Nugent in its ranks. “You listen to Sam Cooke talk about ‘change is gonna come’ — well, what kind of change? We’ve been talking about this for generations, and the politicians that we continue to send back to Lansing and Washington have done precious little to fix the situation that we find ourselves in right now as a people.”

James doesn’t go nearly so far as to advocate for defunding the police, an idea he dismisses as “‘stupid’ — that’s as plainly as I can put it.” Instead, he argues in favor of community policing along with increased accountability for law enforcement officials. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity representing my state, taking those next steps not just to end police brutality,” he told JI, “but also to end the elements of racism that have plagued African Americans since 1619.”

But as progressive Democrats of color have found success in recent weeks — including Jamaal Bowman, Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones — it remains to be seen if James will be able to ride the same wave. He is competing as a member of the Republican Party and has expressed enthusiastic support for President Donald Trump, whose own re-election prospects have worsened in recent weeks. Polling suggests Trump is 11 percentage points behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the battleground state of Michigan. 

James is now trailing Peters by about 10 points, according to a recent poll, putting him in slightly better position than the president. Experts predict that Trump’s sagging numbers, should they persist into the fall, could bring down other GOP candidates. “My main impression is that the president is in significant trouble in Michigan and that will put James at a significant disadvantage,” said Thomas Ivacko, interim director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.

For his part, James has demonstrated a willingness to criticize the president, even if he is somewhat cautious in his appraisals. “We need to make sure that we are staying focused and recognizing that there are issues that are facing Michiganders regardless of race, color, creed,” he said, “that affected us before [Trump] came to office and will affect us after he leaves if we don’t get our act together and put better leadership in Washington.”

John James Interview

In conversation with JI, he positioned himself as “an independent thinker” with a conservative bent who happens to be running as a Republican. “I’m running in the Republican Party not because the Republican Party is perfect or because they blow my skirt up,” he said. “I’m running in the Republican Party because the platform aligns most closely with my economic and moral values.”

GOP strategists believe the Republican upstart has a decent shot of pulling off an upset in November. A victory for James would be a crucial win for the Republican Party as Democrats look to flip the Senate this cycle. Norm Coleman, who chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that James’s Senate bid represents one of his party’s best chances to pick up a seat in the general election and fend off a Democratic majority. 


In 2018, James lost by just 6.5 points in the general election to the long-serving Stabenow. James, who is running unopposed in Michigan’s August 4 primary, now seems emboldened as he looks to depose Peters in November. 

“The last race, I couldn’t get my story out there. I couldn’t get people to know who I was,” James told JI. “Now, I’ll have the opportunity to share my heart, to share my plan and let other people understand how both will positively affect their lives both now and in the future — and, basically, force my opponent to make the case for why he’s been in a position to help Michiganders for 30 years as a politician — 10 years in Washington, six years in the Senate — and half the state had no clue who he was until the election year.”

James thinks his story is deserving of attention now, particularly in the Republican Party. “It’s so important to consider African Americans to make sure that we force both parties to earn our vote,” he said.

Still, as he works to get his own message out, James has occasionally stumbled. Two years ago, his first TV ad came under scrutiny for including an image of a swastika, for which he later apologized. And on Sunday, in an interview with a local news channel in Detroit, he stirred up controversy when he clumsily suggested that the political establishment was “genuflecting for working-class white males and for college-educated women and for our Jewish friends” in a comment whose broader point was that both Republicans and Democrats have long neglected the interests of Black people. 

In a statement on Sunday afternoon, Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus chair Noah Arbit took aim at James’s comment. “At a time in which Americans are confronting the legacy of generations of racism and experiencing unprecedented levels of antisemitic rhetoric and violence, it is reprehensible and deeply offensive that James would think to describe the Republican and Democratic Parties as ‘genuflecting… to our Jewish friends.’”

Despite James’s weekend blunder, he is attuned to the legacy of antisemitism. His Michigan home was built in 1960 by a Jewish family, and the stained glass panes in his front door are believed to have been salvaged from a now-destroyed synagogue in Poland. 

The knowledge that those stained-glass panels may have come from a European synagogue has had a sobering effect on James, according to Bryce Sandler, a political consultant who works on James’s campaign. Every time James walks in and out of his house, Sandler said James has told him, the Army vet is reminded of the enemies he fought as an Apache helicopter pilot during the Iraq War. 


The West Point graduate’s experiences as a veteran have also informed his views on foreign policy in the Middle East. He was against the Iran nuclear deal and believes that Trump made the right move by pulling out. 

“I would have opposed the Iran deal point blank,” said James, who also backed Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani in early January. “I, in my personal experience, have suffered at the hands and seen the suffering at the hands of an Iranian-trained militia that stoked sectarian violence in Baghdad when I was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom,” James said. “The Iranian regime has blood on its hands.”

“Radical extremist governments like Iran’s must not be allowed to become nuclear powers,” James elaborates in a position paper his campaign provided to JI. “Iran has a history of attacking its neighbors, kidnapping American diplomats and supporting terrorist activity. Iran has made no secret of its position calling for the destruction of Israel and spending massive resources to try to achieve that goal, at the expense of its own population. The United States and the international community have a moral imperative to thwart any such attempt by ensuring Iran does not become a nuclear power.”

Some members of Michigan’s Jewish community expressed disappointment to JI that Peters had backed the Iran deal in 2015. “There was a lot of concern in the community about that,” said Sheldon Yellen, a prominent businessman in Detroit, adding, “John has a pretty good understanding of what I think the issues are.”

In a statement to JI, C.J. Warnke, a Peters campaign spokesman, defended the senator’s record. “Gary Peters has always been a steadfast ally of the Jewish community and a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Warnke said. “As the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Gary Peters is a leader in fighting antisemitism, of exposing the growing threats of white nationalism, and of championing increased security funding for synagogues.”

John James politics

James has never been to Israel, but told JI that he has long wanted to go and plans to visit if elected to the Senate. 

“It would be an honor,” he said, “not just from a personal standpoint with respect for my Judeo-Christian roots, but also as a matter of, from a political and an economic standpoint, I think there’s a lot more that the United States and Israel can do to cooperate for the mutual benefit of both our lands.”

James endorsed Trump’s Middle East peace proposal, describing the plan as a “solid step in the right direction.” 

“But supporting a two-state solution is something that requires two willing partners,” he added. “One of the biggest barriers that we continue to see is that Israel continues to be a willing partner, but the Palestinian Authority fails to demonstrate a willingness for a peaceful two-state solution, and they’ve rejected peace proposals time after time.”

Though James supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said he would defer to Israel regarding potential annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated could occur as early as this week. 

James also expressed his support of the Taylor Force Act, which cuts off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority until it ceases payments to families of terrorists. 

“Only if the Palestinian Authority commits to not allowing U.S. aid to go to terrorist operations or salaries should the U.S. consider restoring aid,” he said.


As James gears up to take on Peters ahead of the November election, he is hoping that his story will appeal to voters of all stripes. He insists that his status as a veteran and as a businessman have made him uniquely qualified for a seat in the Senate. After serving in the military, he became president of his father’s logistics and supply chain management company. 

“I believe bringing that balance, making sure that we have a seat at both tables, regardless of who’s the majority or who’s in the White House,” he said, “I believe that’s a stronger position.”

The coronavirus crisis and the killing of George Floyd have torn the “mask off the socioeconomic immobility and the racial plight experienced by, disproportionately, African Americans that have just gone unnoticed and uncared about by a majority of this nation’s population,” he told JI. “And folks were forced to look at it in the face, and I hope they hold our elected officials accountable if, for nothing else, their complicity and their failure to do anything about it over the past few decades.”

Whether his support for Trump will hobble his Senate prospects is an open question, but he is confident that this is his moment. “Better representation is very important for the state of Michigan,” James concluded, invoking a different sort of rallying cry than that of the Trump administration. “I believe it is constitutionally required, and right now, my opponent is the only thing standing between the state and not only its first Black senator but fair representation for 100% of the state, not just the ones who agree with him.”

Two veterans face off in Virginia’s 10th district GOP primary

Two military veterans in Virginia are hoping that serving in Congress will become their next mission.

Victory this November will be an uphill battle for the winner of the Republican primary in the state’s 10th congressional district, which was flipped blue when Rep. Jennifer Wexton unseated two-term incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) in 2018. Now Republicans in the district are looking to reclaim the seat.

Jeff Dove, who deployed to Iraq as an Army chemical operations specialist, and Rob Jones, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine combat engineer tasked with identifying IEDs, are considered top contenders for the nomination. Both men said their military service has shaped them, and their political aspirations, in fundamental ways.

“In the Marine Corps, I learned to be a person that took responsibility for the things that are important to them,” Jones, who lost both legs above the knee in an IED explosion and went on to become a paralympian and advocate for disabled veterans, told Jewish Insider. He said that after studying Wexton’s background and record, “I set my sights on a new mission to return conservative leadership back to my home on behalf of my home and on behalf of my family.”

Dove told JI that “one of the things that I learned while serving in Iraq was, don’t take anything for granted.” He recounted memories of distributing school supplies to Iraqi schoolchildren. “Going to Iraq and going and being in war makes me think twice about reasons why we go and fight. I don’t necessarily think that we should be getting involved in every single conflict out there.”

This is not Dove’s first congressional run — in 2018, he challenged longtime Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) in the neighboring 11th district, losing by nearly 44 points. Despite that loss, Dove said going toe-to-toe with a prominent Democrat like Connolly, who has won by significant margins against Republican opponents since redistricting in 2010 turned the district solidly blue, helped him identify his party’s weaknesses in campaigning, and prepared him to discuss and debate major issues.

Wexton won by more than 10 points in 2018, has stronger name recognition than either Republican and is better funded than her opponents. Jones has $77,000 on hand and Dove has $41,000, while Wexton has $1.8 million. Jones and Dove have both spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their primary campaigns.

Given that the district is a long shot with an expensive media market, neither Republican should expect much additional investment in his campaign, John McGlennon, a professor of government at Virginia’s College of William & Mary, told JI.

“That district has been trending Democratic at a very fast pace, and I don’t see it turning around in this election,” he said.

But this is not Jones’s first battle against difficult circumstances — he fought to survive a gruesome injury and remain physically active and mobile following the amputation of his legs.

Rob Jones (Jones for Congress)

“When I first got wounded, a lot of people would struggle with that, with this drastic change in their life circumstances,” he said. “But one of the things I realized early on was my mom was going to be devastated, and so what was best for her was that I be fine, that I be okay with my injury. Because of that, I think it forced me to rise to the occasion.”

Since leaving the military, Jones has become an activist for wounded veterans, raising money through athletic achievements. He bicycled across the country, from Maine to San Diego, in 2013 and 2014, and ran 31 marathons on 31 consecutive days in different cities around the world in 2017.

“I was in this position where I felt this desire to continue to serve my fellow Marines and continue to serve my country in some capacity,” he said of the marathons. “I didn’t see any of the stories [in the media] where there was this kind of post-traumatic growth after coming back from the war. And so I wanted to make sure that both sides of that coin were told.”

Dove would also bring a unique perspective to Congress if he is elected. With Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) retiring, Dove could become the only black Republican in the House. 

Dove is sharply critical of the way Democratic politicians address the black community. “It’s a shame that politicians on the Democratic side feel they need to do something… to show that they’re so called ‘down with the struggle,’” he said, referencing the announcement made by Democrats last week regarding a police reform package, which the party’s leaders made while wearing stoles with a traditional Ghanaian pattern

“And also they seem to like to talk to us in a certain way to make it seem like we’re not intelligent enough to handle normal English speech,” Dove added, focusing on Joe Biden’s controversial appearance on “The Breakfast Club” radio show. “It’s all pandering and it’s ridiculous. We don’t want to be talked at. The black community wants to be talked to, and heard.”

Dove blames the controversial 1994 crime bill for many of the issues regarding policing in black communities, noting that law enforcement became more aggressive toward black Americans following the legislation’s introduction into law. “When I was in high school, that legislation was first put in place,” he said. “And we could see the difference in how police reacted to us.”

Dove added that, although he has personally had negative experiences with police, including being pulled over and handcuffed, he does not see all police officers as an issue. “I think 99.9% of law enforcement is here to protect and serve us like they’re supposed to,” he said.

Dove praised the bipartisan First Step Act, which reformed federal prisons and sentencing, as a positive move toward meaningful criminal justice reform, and added that he wants to see more portions of the 1994 crime bill repealed. He also said he wants police to be better integrated into the communities they serve, rather than holding what he called an “us versus them mentality.”

He suggested that relations between law enforcement and communities could be strengthened with more direct outreach that brings police closer to the communities they serve.

It’s a mindset that can also be applied to his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dove suggested that the parties need to directly engage in order to move forward.

Dove said he supports a two-state solution, but, “it’s ultimately not going to be our decision. It’s going to be the parties involved… They’re going to have to come together at some point and end this fighting. Because it’s not beneficial for either side to continue.”

Still, the Army veteran sees a role for the U.S. in the peace process — as a mediator in the conflict “making sure that both sides are at the table and continuing discussions and making sure no one is taking too much advantage of the other.”

Jones largely agrees. He also supports a two-state solution, and said the U.S. should “help them come to a solution between the two of them that both of them can be happy with.”

Republicans in the 10th district will pick their nominee at a drive-through convention this Saturday at Shenandoah University, where only pre-registered delegates will be permitted to vote. Also in the race are Matthew Truong, who emigrated from Vietnam at age 12 and built a career in the tech world, and Marine veteran Aliscia Andrews. The convention was originally scheduled for May 30, but delayed due to the coronavirus. A similar convention last Saturday in Virginia’s 5th district has raised significant controversy, but Saturday’s convention in Winchester is expected to go smoothly.

Jones, who announced his candidacy on the ninth anniversary of the attack that took his legs, is confident that delegates will pick the best person for the job — and that he is that person.

“I think the biggest thing is selflessness, acting on the best interests of people that you care about, places that you care about, things that you care about,” he said. “[That] is the key to overcoming anything and accomplishing anything in life.”

Steve King is fighting for his political life in 10th-term bid

In 2018, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) narrowly defeated his Democratic rival, J.D. Scholten, by roughly 10,000 votes. Two years later, bruised by a series of controversies and repudiated by his party’s leadership, King is limping towards his ninth re-election bid. Four candidates are challenging the embattled congressman in Tuesday’s GOP primary to represent Iowa’s 4th congressional district — and one, State Senator Randy Feenstra, may be within striking range of ending King’s tenure in Washington.

King has not run a single television ad over the course of his latest campaign, and entered the final phase of the primary with a little over $30,000 cash on hand. He has been outraised 2-1 by Feenstra, according to the most recent FEC filings. Two recent polls have shown mixed results: A poll conducted by The Iowa Standard shows King with a 13-point lead over Feenstra, while a poll sponsored by the American Future Fund organization showed Feenstra with a two-point lead. Others in the race include businessmen Bret Richards and Steve Reeder and Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor.

Feenstra, 51, has represented Iowa’s 2nd district in the State Senate since 2009, where he serves as assistant majority leader in the GOP-controlled legislature. Previously, he worked in local government for nearly a decade. Feenstra graduated from Dort College and got his master’s degree at Iowa State University. In the private sector, he was head of the sales department at Foreign Candy Company, a large candy manufacturer best known for its Black Forest-flavored gummy bears. 

King has a history of making bigoted comments against a variety of minority groups, and has faced criticism for his association with far-right political parties in Europe. In 2006, the nine-term congressman called the deaths of Americans at the hands of undocumented immigrants “a slow-motion Holocaust.” Last year, House Republican leaders voted to remove King from the Judiciary and Agriculture Committees following comments that appeared to defend white nationalists and white supremacists. Earlier this month, King claimed he had reached an agreement with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to return to his committee slots. The statement was immediately denied by the GOP leader.

King’s original journey to Washington was not a smooth one. In 2002, he ran for the open seat in the 5th congressional district after Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), who had previously represented the district, ran in the newly redrawn 4th district. King received 30% of the vote in a four-way Republican primary, sending the race to a convention, where he narrowly edged out State House Speaker Brent Siegrist. King went on to win the general election with 62% of the vote. In 2013, his district was combined with the 4th. 

But King may still come out on top next Tuesday. “Four people in the race always helps the incumbent,” Rick Bertrand, who challenged King in the 2016 primary, told The New York Times. During a TV debate on Tuesday, King was asked by his main opponent if he would commit to supporting the GOP nominee in the district in November. “I am going to be the nominee, and that’s my answer,” he replied.  

Iowa State Senator Randy Feenstra (Feenstra for Congress)

Feenstra launched his campaign in January 2019 after King was stripped of his committee assignments. He immediately received the backing of former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Feenstra maintained that King being deprived of his committee responsibilities, in particular the agriculture committee, is a good enough reason for him to be replaced. “We have a big agricultural area in our 4th district, and we have lost the seat at the table,” he noted. 

The case against King, Feenstra said, is simple: As an ineffective lawmaker sidelined by his colleagues, the congressman would not be able to advocate for quality-of-life issues that matter to constituents. A primary victory for King “puts the seat at risk, and we don’t need anybody else to help [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, that’s for sure,” Feenstra stressed. The winner of the primary will face Scholten in the fall. 

Iowa conservative Christian leader Bob Vander Plaat, who served with King as co-chair of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) 2016 presidential campaign, is backing Feenstra, as is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which aired more than $200,000 in advertising on broadcast and cable television in the Des Moines and Ames media market, according to Advertising Analytics.

The Republican Jewish Coalition also offered its support to Feenstra. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), a member of the Steering Committee and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, didn’t endorse any candidate, but told JTA that the RJC deserves praise for taking the rare step of supporting a challenger to an incumbent. 

“Steve King’s comments put him clearly outside of the mainstream of the Republican Party and they certainly don’t reflect or represent what we feel to be the values of the Republican Jewish Coalition,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks told JI. “And given that we think we have a strong candidate who can win in Randy Feenstra, we felt it important to take a stand and to make a clear statement that we will do everything in our power to defeat King in the primary and to elect somebody who is better representative of our values.” 

Feenstra has never been to Israel, but says that as a deeply religious person, he’s committed to supporting the Jewish state. “I’ve read the Old Testament many, many times,” he told JI, noting that “actually, right now” he’s reading the book of Exodus. “It’s just very intriguing to me. I just love what Israel stands for. Israel is so important for us as a nation to have as a great ally in the Middle East, and we have to be their protectors,” he added.

As a supporter of the president, Feenstra praised Trump for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He also backs the president’s Mideast peace plan, but stated, “I don’t believe Israel has to give up ground. We have to create a demarcation line and say, ‘This is Israel’s land and let’s be done with it.’” Feenstra took pride in being part of the effort to pass anti-BDS legislation in Iowa in 2016 that prevents state pension funds from directly investing in companies that boycott Israel. 

In Congress, King has been a hawkish supporter of Israel. In 2017, he introduced a resolution “rejecting” the two-state solution. During a debate on an AIPAC-backed bipartisan House resolution (H. R 11) that rebuked the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning Israel, King said, “I would like to have a debate on the one-state solution versus the two-state solution because I believe that the two-state solution has run its course and we need to pack up our tools and ship those off to the side and start all over again with a new look.” 

RJC’s Brooks pushed back against criticism that his organization has abandoned a strong supporter of Israel. “Because somebody stands with us on Israel, which we appreciate, that does not give them a pass to support white nationalism and embrace white nationalist candidates,” Brooks said. “Our endorsement and our support transcends that — Randy Feenstra is going to be a great friend and outspoken supporter of Israel.” 

Brooks noted that the action taken against King by the House Republican Caucus “stands in stark contrast to the lack of action by any of the leaders on the Democratic side with regard to the blatant antisemitism of [Rep.] Ilhan Omar and the offensive and troubling comments by Omar and [Rep.] Rashida Tlaib.” He added, “Republicans have shown that there are clear red lines and act when people within our party cross those lines.”

If successful in his mission to oust the controversial incumbent, Feenstra wants the national newspapers to move on from its focus on his district. “I’m going to Washington to be an effective conservative leader,” he said. “Voters want an effective leader who can stand up and push the conservative agenda of reducing taxes, protecting lives and protecting our constitutional freedoms. That’s the bottom line.”

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