Neal leading Morse 49-40 in Massachusetts 1st

Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) leads his progressive challenger, Alex Morse, by nine points ahead of the heavily contested September 1 Democratic primary in Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district, according to a new Jewish Insider poll.

The poll, based on 518 voter surveys conducted by RABA Research on August 23 and 24, puts Neal on relatively comfortable footing with 49% of the vote, placing him outside the ±4.3% margin of error. Morse pulled in 40% of the vote among those surveyed, with 12% of likely voters reporting that they were “not sure” who they would choose.

At the same time, Neal’s failure to clear the 50% threshold could be a sign of trouble for him, as incumbents polling below 50% are often considered at risk of defeat.

In recent weeks, the contentious race has gained national attention as Morse, who is gay, became embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal that nearly ended his run. But he was vindicated after the allegations put forth in a letter by the College Democrats of Massachusetts appeared to have been part of a scheme to derail Morse’s campaign in coordination with the state’s Democratic Party. Neal has denied any knowledge of such plans.

The controversy seems to have given Morse a boost, said Robert Boatright, a professor in the department of political science at Clark University in Worcester. “A lot of people outside Massachusetts rallied to his side on that, so the story got him more visibility, and my guess would be it helped him more than it hurt him,” he told JI. 

“But at the same time, the district is not really favorable to him,” Boatright added, predicting that Neal’s blue-collar base would likely give him an edge next week.

Still, Boatright speculated that left-leaning enthusiasm for another candidate in Massachusetts, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — who is running against a younger challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), but has been backed by progressives in and outside of the district — could perhaps buoy Morse in his own race. 

According to the JI poll, Kennedy leads Markey 44% to 37% among Democratic and independent voters in Massachusetts’s 1st congressional district. Nineteen percent of respondents said they were undecided.

Morse, the 31-year-old Holyoke mayor, entered the race to unseat Neal last summer, riding a progressive grassroots wave that, this election season, has swept away a number of long-serving legislators including Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and William Lacy Clay (D-MO). 

Among the many issues demonstrating the political divide in the race, Neal and Morse have divergent views on aid to Israel. Morse, who is Jewish, believes the U.S. should condition aid to Israel in order to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies towards the Palestinians. Neal opposes conditioning security assistance to Israel.

According to the poll, a plurality of voters in the district — 48% — think aid to Israel should be conditioned, while 34% want assistance to continue without conditions. Eighteen percent — including 29% of voters who identified as “very liberal” — were not sure or expressed no opinion on the matter.

Morse said he does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but opposes efforts to legislate against BDS.

Neal is backed by a number of pro-Israel groups including Pro-Israel America and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), which last week poured more than $100,000 into anti-Morse advertising.

Over the past year, Morse has built a formidable campaign operation, raising more than $1.3 million, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission. 

While the polling indicates Morse has been gaining momentum, he’ll still have to overcome the gap if he wants to pull off an upset in the district, which includes a large swath of western and central Massachusetts. 

Morse, who is backed by Justice Democrats, picked up another key endorsement on Tuesday from Courage to Change, the political action committee founded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The endorsement was not reflected in the poll because it occurred after the surveys were conducted.

Neal, who entered Congress in 1989 and serves as the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has vastly outraised his opponent, raking in nearly $3.8 million in his reelection effort. 

Neal, 71, has also benefited from considerable outside spending. In addition to the money spent by DMFI, the American Working Families super PAC poured more than $500,000 in advertising into the race in an effort to boost Neal.

Even if Neal manages to defend his seat, his falling short of 50% in the poll signals a tough political environment for established longtime members of Congress.

“If this were an isolated phenomenon, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but there have been a bunch of these races,” Howard J. Gold, a professor of government at Smith College in Northampton, told JI. “This fits into a really well established and growing pattern, and the old guard, the Democratic establishment, has to be really, really, careful. They can’t rely on politics as it used to be.”

Jacob Kornbluh and Marc Rod contributed to this report.

Laura Loomer’s latest stunt

Laura Loomer shot to fame in far-right circles as a kind of viral stunt performer who seemed unusually intent on staging random acts of provocation. Three years ago, the 27-year-old conservative agitator disrupted a “Julius Caesar” production — heavy on Trump allusions — in Central Park, and was promptly removed by security officers. In 2018, Loomer handcuffed herself to Twitter’s New York headquarters after she was kicked off the site for tweeting, among other things, that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was “anti Jewish.” The list goes on.

“I’m literally the most censored person in the world,” claimed Loomer, adding that she has been banned from virtually every mainstream social media platform, including Instagram, Facebook and Periscope, as well as other services like Uber, Lyft and PayPal. 

Now, Loomer is hoping she can pull off what may be her biggest stunt yet: running for Congress in South Florida’s solidly blue 21st congressional district, which includes President Donald Trump’s official Palm Beach residence, Mar-a-Lago. The seat is currently held by four-term incumbent Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL).

Despite Loomer’s fringe status, experts in Florida state politics believe that she has a solid chance of winning the Republican primary today. Loomer, who entered the race last August, has racked up endorsements from the likes of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Roger Stone. Though Trump has not made an endorsement, he has tweeted in support of the candidate. And Loomer has outraised all of her opponents, having pulled in nearly $1.2 million, according to the latest filings from the Federal Election Commission.

Loomer has taken donations from some high-profile contributors on the right, including the deplatformed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; Lydia Brimelow, who is married to the founder of the white nationalist website VDARE; Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus; and former U.S. ambassador Eric Javits.

“When I filed to run, people were mocking me on the left and the right because, I guess you could say, I’ve been a controversial figure, and a lot of people have very strong feelings about me because of the way that big tech and the media have demonized me,” Loomer told Jewish Insider in a recent interview, adding: “Now they just have egg on their face because I’m the frontrunner.”

Still, Loomer’s war chest is not a sure sign of voter support, as many of the donations she has received have come from outside the state, according to former Florida Congressman Ron Klein, who chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “People think she’s a viable candidate, but that’s not necessarily the case,” he told JI. “If she was raising money in the district, it would mean she had more momentum.”

“Her game is to be the shock candidate,” Klein added. “She says things that will shock the conscience, and that’s what makes it newsworthy.”

Born and raised in Arizona, Loomer attended Barry University in Miami Shores. Previously, she worked for James O’Keefe’s guerilla journalism outfit, Project Veritas, as well as Rebel Media, a right-wing Canadian news operation. Loomer moved to Palm Beach, she said, about two-and-a-half years ago after a stint in New York.

Loomer, who is active on right-wing social media sites like Parler and Gab, decided to run for Congress because of her experiences being booted from online platforms. “I do believe that big tech censorship is the most pressing issue this election cycle, along with restoring law and order,” said Loomer, who alleges, without evidence, that social media sites including Twitter and Facebook have enabled protest movements like Black Lives Matter, which she describes as antisemitic, while silencing its critics.

Loomer, who is Jewish, said she feels a strong sense of connection with her faith. “I’m not a hyper-religious person,” she said. “I’m Jewish, but for me, it’s an identity. You know, being Jewish is also — it’s cultural, it’s political, and it’s a race. They classify being Jewish as a race now. And so you’re ethnically Jewish.”

Her grandfather, the late Harry Loomer, was a pioneering psychiatrist who was born in Brooklyn and earned his medical degree in Vienna, where he witnessed the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 and was arrested by the Gestapo only to be released when the U.S. consulate intervened. 

Loomer describes herself as an “open Zionist” and has been to Israel, she estimated, five times — first on a Birthright trip in college and subsequently with the United West, a Florida-based nonprofit that the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as an “active anti-Muslim group.” 

“What we do is we take people to Israel to learn about national security and Zionism,” said Loomer, adding that last year’s trip was focused on border security.

Laura Loomer’s latest stunt
Loomer poses with Roger Stone (Loomer Campaign)

Loomer is one of several far-right Republican candidates this cycle who have emerged as contenders in congressional elections, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon believer who recently won her runoff in Georgia’s 14th district and is expected to claim victory in the general election.

Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who specializes in conspiracy theories, said that candidates like Greene and Loomer have been able to harness support by taking advantage of low-turnout elections. “These alt-right and QAnon people can win because primaries attract very few voters,” he told JI.

But even if Loomer advances beyond her primary, she will have a hard time defeating Frankel in a district rated “solid Democratic” by The Cook Political Report. “In that district, it’s almost impossible to see how Loomer pulls it off,” said Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist and so-called “Never Trumper,” who is based in Florida.

Loomer’s incendiary comments will also likely alienate her from voters in the district, according to Steven Tauber, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “Loomer certainly has supporters,” he said, “but she is extremely divisive because of her bigoted statements against Muslims and her outrageous claims that mass shootings, including Parkland, were staged.”

Steven Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida, was more emphatic in his appraisal of Loomer’s chances. “Do I think a candidate whose views and public statements are so absurdly loony that she’s even been banned by basically every platform imaginable — she can’t even get food delivered by Uber Eats — do I think she can beat Lois Frankel?” he said. “Let’s just say I have a better chance of being named the starting quarterback for the Jaguars.”

Loomer disagrees that she won’t be able to harness support should she make it to November, citing an internal poll that she claims gives her a nine-point lead over Frankel in the general election. When JI requested the poll in a text message, Loomer replied with a link to a Breitbart report but did not go into specifics about the manner in which the poll was conducted. 

A separate poll from an outside firm puts Loomer four points behind Frankel in a hypothetical matchup.

Polls aside, Karen Giorno, Loomer’s campaign manager, who previously served as Trump’s chief Florida strategist during the 2016 election, believes her candidate should not be underestimated. “Is it a blue district? Yes,” she said. “Is it unflippable? No.” 

Giorno told JI that she came out of retirement to help Loomer get elected. “She is kind of a political celebrity in her own right, but she reminds me very much of a little mini Donald Trump,” Giorno enthused. “You know, she doesn’t sleep; he doesn’t sleep. They work off of four hours a night, if that. They are a bundle of energy.”

For her part, Frankel seems unconcerned by the prospect of going up against a young conservative rabble-rouser with no experience in government. “With COVID-19 still rampant in Florida, I am focused on saving lives and livelihoods,” the congresswoman told JI through a spokesperson.

Barry Shrage dishes on two key Massachusetts Democratic primaries

The Senate primary matchup in Massachusetts between Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has made for some curious dynamics. While progressive Democrats are throwing their support behind the 74-year-old Markey, a co-author of the Green New Deal who has held elected office for nearly 50 years, the local pro-Israel community has largely rallied behind Kennedy, the 39-year-old political scion who gave up his seat in the state’s 4th congressional district to run against a member of his own party.

In a recent letter, more than 75 Jewish community leaders in Massachusetts endorsed the young congressman over Markey, though the two elected officials seem to share similar views. “At a time when some work overtime to delegitimize Israel, Joe has been unyielding in making Israel’s case to those who may be reluctant to listen to it,” read the letter, which was published earlier this month. “He has never ducked and run when it comes to support for Israel.”

Barry Shrage, a professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and the former president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, was one of those who signed onto the letter, and in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, he explained his reasons for backing Kennedy.

“I support him because I think that, at the end of this particular era of politics, after the next election, we’re going to be trying to figure out who’s going to lead the Democratic Party into the future,” Shrage said. “I’m 73 myself. I’m not against older people. They’re all great. We’re all great. Baby boomers are my favorite. But on the other hand, the future of the Democratic Party, as everyone knows, is not Joe Biden, it’s not [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. These are all fine people, but they’re not going to be in a position to actually lead the party. So the question is going to be, ‘Who is going to lead the party?’”

Shrage is worried that the answer to that question could be such left-wing Democrats as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a rising star who has endorsed Markey and whose political views are inhospitable to Israel. “It troubles me,” Shrage said, pointing out that Markey has also been endorsed by a local nonprofit organization, Massachusetts Peace Action, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Not that Shrage is implying Markey necessarily holds the same views of those who have backed him. “I’m not saying that’s Ed Markey. I’m not,” said Shrage, who added that Markey has a solid record when it comes to Israel. “But I’m saying that all that support from those places makes me concerned.”

“Whether Markey will feel beholden to them or not, I do not know,” Shrage added. “I assume that he will continue to be a supporter of Israel as he has been in the past. But I still worry about the future of the party and maintaining a bipartisan sense of support for Israel.”

“It’s a big deal for me as a Jewish person,” Shrage concluded.

Though Shrage publicly supports Kennedy, he declined to reveal who he would be voting for in the district Kennedy is leaving behind to run for Senate. (He has donated $350 to local legislator Becky Grossman, according to the Federal Election Commission.) The crowded Democratic primary contest includes nine candidates who are vying to represent a portion of southeastern Massachusetts in Congress. 

Shrage believes that most of the candidates would do a fine job representing the 4th district, reserving criticism for Ihssane Leckey, a young progressive who has been endorsed by Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now Boston. Leckey, Shrage said, “really doesn’t understand the nature of Israel, its political systems, its strengths.”

A recent poll released by Leckey’s campaign put her in third with 11% of the vote, behind Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss at 16% and Grossman at 19%. The numbers suggest that some of the contenders could split the vote, giving Leckey the edge in a packed race.  

“There’s no way to know how the vote is going to split,” Shrage said. “The best thing we can do is to make sure that people do come out for the candidate of their choice.”

With that in mind, Shrage said he has been doing his part to educate Jewish voters in the district about their options. He has helped distribute letters to synagogues and Jewish organizations exhorting Jewish community members to participate in online forums so they can decide for themselves who they like. 

The hope, he explained, is that even if the vote splits, Leckey will fail to garner enough support to advance to the primary. 

“What I want the Jewish community to know is that this is an extremely important race that deserves their time, attention and their engagement in order to make the best possible choice and avoid a situation where a district that’s always been balanced, liberal, progressive and also pro-Israel goes in a totally different direction,” Shrage averred. “It would be, what we used to say in Yiddish, a shanda.”

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.

Auchincloss defends himself amid renewed scrutiny of past statements

Facing a firestorm of criticism for past social media posts, Massachusetts 4th district Democratic congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss addressed his comments in a web event hosted by the Boston Globe on Monday.

The Globe had endorsed Auchincloss — a Newton, Mass. city councilor — in the district’s crowded Democratic primary shortly before the social media posts resurfaced. 

In a 2010 post, addressing Pakistani lawyers burning an American flag at a rally, Auchincloss wrote, “So we can’t burn their book, but they can burn our flag?” In the other, he said that Cambridge, Mass. was “taking P[olitical] C[orrectness] too far” by changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s day.

Auchincloss apologized for his comments about the Quran, characterizing them as “a stuipd remark by a snarky 22-year-old” and said that he is “surprised and embarrassed” by them now. “It’s not how I felt then and it’s certainly not how I feel now,” he said.

Auchincloss argued that he was attempting to point out difficulties inherent in the broad protections of the First Amendment.

“As a country, we have grappled with how to balance the First Amendment freedom of expression, which has been an important bulwark of liberty in our country’s history, against the portfolio of other civil liberties that we cherish, including freedom from fear and freedom from harassment — and that’s an ongoing balance that we need to strike as a country,” he said.

He went on to say that he objects to burning both scripture and the American flag, adding that he was not advocating for burning either in his post. He said he has “grown and evolved” since he posted the comment, pointing specifically to his experiences working with Afghani Muslims while deployed to the country.

When pressed by Globe editorial editor Bina Venkataraman, who moderated the event, Auchincloss said the post was a “tone deaf way to kind of make a point about mutual toleration.”

The candidate also addressed a previous statement that Newton high school students should not be punished for displaying a Confederate flag on school grounds. Auchincloss had argued that the students had the First Amendment right to display the flag, but told Venkataraman that he now regrets his response.

Auchincloss also said that he has changed his opinion on Columbus after reading more about him, and is now advocating for Newton to change the holiday to Indigenous People’s Day.

On the issue of political correctness more broadly, Auchincloss pointed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and broader criticism of Israel on college campuses as examples of the potential dangers of political correctness taken too far.

“I do worry that on college campuses in particular, we see an increasing reluctance to engage with different points of view, I think we’ve seen this, and this is especially close to home for me as a Jewish American,” he said. “We’ve seen this with issues related to Israel and BDS… I do think that as a country, we’ve got to be careful that we’re not putting [blinders], that we really are willing to grapple with the full suite of opinions.”

Auchincloss also addressed reader concerns over his level of engagement with communities of color in Newton.

He insisted he’s been engaged in conversations about racism and discrimination throughout his time in city government, noting that he has received the backing of local civil rights advocates.

“I’m going to continue to be there in Congress on behalf of the Black community, on behalf of other historically marginalized communities,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of work to do as a country to be a place where everybody truly feels like they’re part of our common heritage and they’re part of the 21st century promise that we have. And I’ve been there on the City Council and I’ll be there in Congress.”

Venkataraman questioned Auchincloss’s claims that he opposes dark money in politics, noting that he has benefited from $180,000 in outside advertising from a super PAC, which received a $40,000 donation from his parents.

“We have a broken campaign finance system,” he responded. “We have to operate in the system that we have. We all have to play by the same set of rules. And right now I’m under attack by a quarter million dollars worth of dark money that is trying to paint an incredibly unfair distortion of my beliefs. And I think there are people who want to tell a positive story about me… I hope that story gets out and can counterbalance these really negative unfair attacks.”

Senate GOP primary comes down to the wire in Kansas

Kris Kobach, the former Secretary of State of Kansas, has accepted donations from white nationalists, paid an individual who posted racist comments on a white nationalist website and allegedly employed three other white nationalists during his failed gubernatorial campaign in 2018.

He is also a leading contender in today’s crowded Senate primary in Kansas, featuring no fewer than 11 Republican candidates jockeying to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). Kobach’s presence in the race has put extremism experts on alert.

“It’s just a very consistent record that he takes these far-right, nativist, anti-immigration views,” said David Neiwert, the author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, who kept a close eye on Kobach’s trajectory when he worked as a correspondent for the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. “This is Kris Kobach’s identity.”

The Anti-Defamation League is similarly wary of Kobach, a 54-year-old immigration hardliner with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford who currently writes a column for Breitbart.

“Kris Kobach is an anti-immigrant bigot who spoke in 2015 at an event organized by a publisher that routinely elevates the writings of white supremacists,” an ADL spokesperson told Jewish Insider, referring to Kobach’s appearance at an event hosted by the Social Contract Press, founded by white nationalist John Tanton. “He has also championed the baseless conspiracy theory about rampant voter fraud in the 2016 election, and has been credibly accused of promoting legislation that engages in racial profiling, including Arizona’s controversial ‘Show Me Your Papers’ law.”

Kobach’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

Heading into Tuesday’s primary, political scientists told JI that with little polling data available, it’s unclear who currently leads the Republican field, though Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) has emerged alongside Kobach as one of the stronger candidates in the race. 

“The best guess is that it’s some kind of coin flip, probably between Kobach and Marshall,” said Patrick R. Miller, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Kansas.

Though Kobach has been gaining momentum, one of his weak spots is his “poor fundraising,” according to Miller. Kobach, who in 2004 unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Kansas’s 3rd congressional district, has raked in approximately $940,000, according to the Federal Election commission — far less than Marshall, who has raised $2.7 million. 

Still, Kobach’s campaign has been buoyed by billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel, who has pumped $850,000 into a super PAC supporting the insurgent candidate. 

Kobach has also garnered unexpected support from a separate, Democratic-linked super PAC, which is spending millions of dollars to run ads that characterize Kobach as a more committed conservative than Marshall — the subtext being that Democrats view Kobach as the weaker Republican candidate in the general election.

Kris Kobach vs Roger Marshall
Rep. Roger Marshall (Eric Connolly, U.S. House Office of Photography)

Some establishment Republicans seem to agree, experts say. “They’re definitely afraid Kobach will win the nomination,” Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, told JI. “If Kobach wins, the seat immediately turns into a tossup.”

Marshall, for his part, has also benefited from some outside spending, though the GOP was initially skeptical of his candidacy: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly advocated for former senator and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run for the seat, despite repeated rejections from Pompeo. Now, a McConnell-aligned super PAC is spending $1.2 million to boost Marshall. 

“He might be the rickety tank they’re reluctantly riding into battle, but it’s the only tank they have,” Miller said of Marshall, 59, who has represented Kansas’s 1st congressional district since 2017.

Gavriela Geller, director of JCRB/AJC Kansas City, an organization that merged the regional office of the American Jewish Committee and the local Jewish Community Relations Bureau, said that Marshall has been receptive to meeting members of the Jewish community in Kansas and hearing their concerns. 

“We would hope that whoever wins the Senate seat will be similarly receptive to working with us and addressing the multiple sources of rising antisemitism in this country, including a troubling increase in white nationalist rhetoric and violence, which is of particular concern in our region,” Geller told JI, noting that she could not endorse any candidate in the race because her organization is nonpartisan. 

Despite pressure from some party leaders to endorse Marshall, President Donald Trump also appears set on staying out of the primary. Kobach, a Trump ally, had previously been considered for positions as Trump’s “immigration czar” as well as secretary of homeland security.

Another Republican candidate, Bob Hamilton, a former plumbing company owner well-known in the state for ads that featured his name, has shifted the dynamics of the race in recent weeks by spending more than $2 million of his own money on advertising. Experts say that won’t put him in the lead, but Hamilton’s efforts to boost his profile could pull support away from the other candidates and give one of them an edge.

The competing ads have made for a confusing situation for Republican voters. “People aren’t talking much about policy,” said Loomis.

Kansas State Sen. Barbara Bollier (Courtesy)

On the other side of the aisle, State Senator Barbara Bollier is running essentially uncontested for the Democratic nomination. She became known in the state for switching her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat at the end of 2018, and has built a reputation as a centrist candidate. 

“She’s proving to be a more credible candidate and a stronger candidate than people thought she would be,” said Miller, “and I think Republicans would be foolish to discount that.”

A June 2 poll found Bollier in a statistical dead heat with Marshall, Kobach and Hamilton in hypothetical general election matchups. 

A May 28 poll, however, found Marshall 11 points ahead of Bollier, and Bollier and Kobach tied. Bollier has stunned observers in the state, Miller said, by far outraising each of her Republican opponents in the race: She’s already raised $7.8 million, with more than $4 million still on hand.

But more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Kobach has emerged as an ostensible frontrunner in Kansas’s packed Republican primary field. “It’s a Republican state, but historically it has not been a far-right Republican state,” Loomis said. 

When the votes are counted, Kansans will find out whether that formulation holds up.

The race to succeed Rep. Justin Amash heats up

Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) was once a popular figure in Michigan’s 3rd congressional district.  He represented the district for a decade, winning by wide margins in several elections. Attention turned to the seat in 2019, when Amash announced he was leaving the Republican Party, and intensified when Amash declared a short-lived presidential bid in the spring. In July, he announced he would not seek reelection, leaving both major parties hopeful that they might win the seat.

Even before Amash made his announcement last month, half a dozen candidates had entered the race to represent the district, which is made up of counties in the western portion of the state, including Grand Rapids. With Amash’s departure from the race, the Cook Political Report has pushed the district from “toss-up” to “lean Republican.” 

Democratic candidate Hillary Scholten, who served in the Justice Department during the Obama administration, is running unopposed in the primary, and has already picked up the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program and JStreetPAC.

But the five-person Republican primary, scheduled for August 4, is a heated competition, with Iraq veteran Peter Meijer — scion of the Midwestern Meijer grocery chain — and State Representative Lynn Afendoulis leading the field.

And as Amash has alienated voters on both sides of the aisle, the leading candidates are taking steps to distance themselves from the congressman.

“I’d rather focus on the future than dwell on the past,” Meijer told JI. “For a lot of candidates, it’s tempting to define themselves based off of being the ‘pro-this’ or ‘anti-that.’ And I’ve always been focused on not defining myself relative to others but saying we need to be looking forward.”

Peter Meijer (Meijer for Congress)

Afendoulis had strong words for Amash, who left the Republican Party last July.

“Justin Amash looks at the role differently than I do,” she said. “He has had a constituency of one. And he has represented his own needs and his own beliefs and his own agenda, rather than the agenda of the district… He has not been able to move the ball forward anywhere because he sees things black and white, and he cannot work with others.”

Although Scholten praised Amash for advocating for Trump’s impeachment, she was skeptical of his overall record.

“I really think that Congressman Amash wasn’t doing enough for our district,” Scholten told JI, pointing to his overall voting record, highlighting his votes against the Affordable Care Act, environmental protections and anti-lynching legislation. “I raised my hand to run because I realized that the congressman was not representing our values on so many crucial issues.”

***

Meijer is the current Republican frontrunner, according to Michigan State University politics professor Corwin Smidt, although Afendoulis may still have a shot at the nomination.

Meijer and Afendoulis have adopted starkly different tones on the campaign trail. Meijer has avoided the aggressive pro-Trump rhretoric many Republican congressional candidates have embraced this cycle — noting obliquely in a recent interview that “the easiest way to win the primary is the easiest way to lose the general.” This stance, and a past donation to an anti-Trump group, have led Afendoulis’s campaign to label Meijer as a “never Trumper.”

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Meijer pushed back against the attack.

“A lot of those same opponents behind closed doors have accused me of being too supportive of the president and not distancing myself enough,” he said. “So it’s not surprising that folks who are looking for simple political advantage will talk out of both sides of their mouth.”

Meijer leads the field in fundraising, with $1.5 million raised, $325,000 of which is self-funded. Scholten is second, with just over $1 million, but she has nearly $200,000 more in the bank than Meijer at the moment, and outraised all of her Republican challengers in the second quarter. Afendoulis has raised approximately $900,000 overall.

The well-known Meijer name has also been a boon for his campaign, Smidt said. His family’s grocery chain is prominent in the region, and his family is also involved in philanthropic work in and around the district. In his interview with JI, Meijer drew a direct line between the grocery business and Congress.

“The mantra in our company is that the customer’s always right… We want to make sure that we are providing the assortment of items and that level of customer service,” he told JI. “Frankly, I want to do the same thing in Congress. Every stage of this campaign, it’s been a very simple message. It’s been about talking to the community and making sure that we are focused on how to continue to make west Michigan a great and strong place.”

Heading into the general election, Smidt said Meijer’s wealth and fundraising edge could serve as strong assets against Scholten. He added that Amash’s decision not to seek reelection on the libertarian line dealt a major blow to Scholten’s congressional aspirations.

“At first, I thought the advantage would be for Scholten in a three-way race if Amash was going to run as a libertarian. Amash would effectively split the Republican votes among those in the 3rd district who are anti-Trump and those who are pro-Trump,” he said. “I’m not so convinced now that Scholten has as easy of a case now with Amash not running.”

***

Lynn Afendoulis (Michigan House Republicans)

Meijer served as an intelligence officer in Iraq and later worked with an NGO in Afghanistan supporting aid workers within the country. He said his experiences in the Middle East are foundational to his congressional aspirations.

“[I] saw that our political polarization and a lack of understanding of the realities of our conflicts was really hampering our ability to have long-term strategic solutions,” Meijer said. “So I wanted to come back, get more engaged, make sure I could take the experiences that I had in Iraq and Afghanistan… and use that not only to make sure that we as a country are heading on a better path but also return a sense of strong, stable and effective representation to west Michigan.”

His time working in conflict zones also changed his views on U.S. military engagement abroad, making him a committed advocate for ending the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I definitely came in as a hawk,” he said. “I came away that, when we lead with a military-first international engagement, it doesn’t make us more secure. It doesn’t make us safer. And it only increases risks and dangers for our allies throughout the world. I want us to be leading with a diplomacy and intelligence-first approach.”

“When I was in Iraq, we were driving around in million-dollar armored vehicles that can be destroyed by a $200 bomb, and I’m tired of American forces being on the wrong end of that cost-benefit equation,” he added.

Meijer also favors a diplomatic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the U.S. acting as a “mediating force,” but stopped short of endorsing any specific plan. “I vastly prefer not to go into any negotiation with a preset outcome,” he said.

He added that he saw the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran as “well intended but… very flawed,” and said he personally dealt with the consequences of Iranian hostility while fighting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. 

“We would confiscate artillery rounds that were stamped ‘made in Iran’ within a few months of their production,” he recounted. “[The JCPOA] was too narrowly targeted and was sufficiently toothless to really hem in a lot of the malign foreign influence that Iran has been projecting.”

Afendoulis avoided discussing specifics about the Mideast peace process, saying she needs to study the issue further, but emphasized that she supports a “secure, vibrant Israel.”

Hillary Scholten (Scholten for Congress)

Scholten, however, was clear in her support for a two-state solution.

“I think the U.S. should play a role of independent and neutral mediator or arbiter,” she said. “I don’t think the United States should insert itself in a way that puts the thumb on the scale of the very necessary two-state solution process that we need to eventually reach peace.”

In pursuit of that, Scholten said she supports restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority, and did not rule out conditioning or reducing U.S. aid to Israel.

“I think it’s very circumstance-dependent,” she said. “And I think that the United States should continue its very helpful and supportive role to Israel. I think that we absolutely need to make sure that we are continuing to give aid in a way that supports a neutral position and supports and enhances a two-state solution.”

Scholten said she does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, explaining “it’s very clear the BDS movement has deep roots in antisemitic sentiment and rhetoric.”

The Democratic candidate added that she does not see antisemitism as unique to any particular political perspective, but emphasized that she thinks Trump has stoked antisemitism by aligning himself with domestic extremists.

Meijer agreed that antisemitism appears within fringe political movements of all stripes, but specifically mentioned BDS and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as concerning.

Afendoulis emphasized the importance of tough conversations and strong leadership in combating antisemitism and other forms of extremism. 

“Leaders in our communities, leaders in our nation have to set examples,” she said. “And we have to show that we are people of compassion, and that we respect the rule of law, and that we respect each other and that we are interested in engaging in conversations that will get us to better understandings.”

High-stakes Republican runoff in Texas attracts national attention

Tony Gonzales recently spent two years in Washington, working as a Department of Defense legislative fellow for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Now, the former Navy master chief petty officer is looking to return to the nation’s capital — as the congressman representing Texas’s 23rd congressional district.

Gonzales, who comes armed with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, is likely to win Tuesday’s runoff against another veteran, Raul Reyes. Gonzales came out on top in the March 3 primary, taking 28% of the vote to Reyes’ 23%. The winner will go up against Gina Ortiz Jones, who handily beat her opponents in the Democratic primary.

Jones narrowly lost her 2018 bid against Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who announced last August that he would not be seeking a fourth term. This year, Jones is favored to win in the district that The Cook Political Report rates as “Lean Democratic.”

But Gonzales is up for the challenge, telling Jewish Insider that he can deliver a victory against Jones in November where Reyes cannot. “I have the experience of being on Capitol Hill, drafting legislation, staffing, hearings, doing constituent services,” he said. 

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, agreed that Reyes would be unlikely to win in November.

“Whoever wins [the runoff]… will have a real uphill struggle against Gina Ortiz Jones,” Jones continued. “It’s going to be really tough for Gonzales to win that seat.”

But Gonzales is optimistic that voters in the district, which has flipped between Democratic and Republican control in recent years but was held by Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla for 14 years, will turn out for him in November. He pointed out that he’s a Hispanic candidate running in a majority-Hispanic district, an advantage over Jones.

***

Should he win, Gonzales would bring to Congress a font of Middle East policy expertise. While in the military, he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And while working for Rubio, he focused on defense, national security and intelligence issues, with a particular focus on the Middle East.

“I spent my entire adult life basically at war,” he said. “A big part of my message is taking care of veterans, on one hand. The other aspect of it is for America to be firm. I believe in peace through strength.”

In 2018, as a national security fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Gonzales visited Israel, which he said helped shape his view of the region and understanding of the geopolitical situation.

“I read about the Golan Heights and studied it and I understood its strategic importance,” he said, explaining that seeing the situation on the ground allowed him to realize that the area was more than a military interest. “But when you visit it, the part that is left out is there’s this amazing winery just miles from the Golan Heights. So in my eyes, yeah, of course Israel would never give up that area.”

Julia Schulman, senior director of special projects at FDD, told JI, “Gina and Tony are both members of FDD’s non-partisan national security alumni network. Both are dedicated public servants who were actively engaged in our programming. Both have exciting careers ahead and we look forward to seeing how they continue to serve our country.”

Gonzales said he does not believe the U.S. should dictate any specific peace plan for the region, nor should it dictate whether Israel should be allowed to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank.

“The Israelis and the Palestinians, I think, should lead the way,” he said. “I think [America’s] role is to bring those [actors] together and open up a dialogue, not necessarily dictate what that peace process should be like.”

He added, however, “my experience in the military has taught me that you really can’t have peace unless you have partners that are willing to have that discussion. So I think it starts there.”

Although Gonzales believes that peace negotiations also are the best way to resolve the U.S. conflict with Iran, he did not support the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the regime.

“I’d love nothing more than Iran to come to the negotiating table and have a dialogue and a discussion. That’s, I believe, how we solve a long-term solution,” he said. “In the meantime, though, that region of the world views strength through power.”

In this sense, Gonzales said, the Trump administration’s tougher posture toward Iran, including the strike which killed Gen. Qassem Solemaini, has been a net positive.

Gonzales — who was a Navy cryptologist — said Iran, as well as Russia and China, pose major cyber threats to the U.S., including U.S. elections.

“Our greatest [external] adversaries are China, Russia and Iran,” he said. “The number one thing is having the dialogue and saying, ‘Yes, China is trying to impact our elections. Yes, Russia is trying to impact our elections. Yes, Iran and others are trying to impact our elections.’ Why? Because they’re our adversaries. They’re trying to undermine us. And I think just being able to say that is already a win that we don’t have on Capitol Hill.”

***

What was anticipated to be a fairly quiet runoff in southwestern Texas between two military veterans has become the site of a high-stakes clash between major players in the national GOP. 

Gonzales has the support of Trump, Hurd and other GOP leaders, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) broke with the party to support Reyes, boosting him with a massive ad campaign that raised eyebrows at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

And on the eve of the primary, Trump’s campaign sent a strongly worded letter to Reyes’s campaign, admonishing him for using the president’s name and image on a mailer. 

“President Trump and his campaign do not support your candidacy in TX-23’s July 14 runoff primary,” Trump campaign executive director Michael Glassner said in the letter, which was first reported by Politico. “Your campaign’s efforts to make voters believe otherwise are deceptive and unfair.”

Reyes’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Jones said Trump’s endorsement helped shore up Gonzales’ campaign by shielding him from Reyes’s claims that he’s too much of an establishment Republican.

“I think Gonzales is going to [win that runoff] pretty easily,” Jones told JI.

But if he doesn’t, Jones predicts the race will drop off the radar of the GOP. “If Reyes wins, I would expect national Republicans to pull the plug on [TX]23,” Jones told JI. “If Reyes wins, [the district] will cease to be a real priority.”

Eyeing the races in Texas’s much-anticipated primary runoffs

There are a number of intriguing races to watch in Texas’s primary runoffs today. Patrick Svitek, a political correspondent for the Texas Tribune, ran through some of the most noteworthy matchups in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. Here’s what he’s keeping an eye on as votes are tallied today:

Senate runoff: At the top of the ticket is the Democratic primary runoff for the United States Senate. M.J. Hegar, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, is going up against Royce West, a veteran state politician who has served in the Texas Senate for close to three decades. Though West has trailed Hegar in the polls, he has slightly closed the gap in recent weeks as mass protests against police brutality have swept the nation. But West, who is African American, isn’t exactly an upstart progressive along the lines of Charles Booker, who came close to defeating Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s recent Senate primary race.

“I don’t think it’s an explicit moderate-versus-progressive matchup,” Svitek said of the West-Hegar contest. “And I think it may be tempting for folks from outside the state to kind of put it through that lens.” Svitek believes that Hegar — who is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has outraised her opponent — is the ultimate favorite in the race. Whether she will be able to defeat Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in November, however, is another story. Hegar is still something of a long shot, according to Svitek, but Trump’s sagging poll numbers may bode well for her. “I think she’s increasingly coming on the radar because of how close the presidential race is looking in the state,” Svitek said. 

TX-13: In Texas’s 13th congressional district, Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former doctor, is going up against Josh Winegarner, a cattle industry lobbyist, in the open-seat race to replace outgoing Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX). Svitek described the race as the “most contentious” in the state. Jackson, who has been endorsed by the president, has accused his opponent of being anti-Trump, while Winegarner has attacked Jackson for only recently moving to the district. As of a week ago, Svitek said, it looked as if Jackson had the edge, but more recently, the race has tightened. “That’s one to watch, for sure,” he told JI. 

TX-10: In 2018, Mike Siegel, a progressive Democrat, came within just four percentage points of beating Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) in the state’s 10th congressional district, a historically conservative swath between Austin and Houston. He is trying again this cycle, but first, Siegel will have to defeat Pritesh Gandhi, a well-known doctor in the district. “Gandhi is not as progressive as Siegel,” Svitek said, “but has run a pretty strong race, been the top fundraiser, brings a really interesting story as a physician here in Austin for a community health clinic, and he’s obviously benefited from being in the spotlight on the frontlines of the coronavirus.”

Still, Svitek added, Siegel has built-in name recognition from his last attempt at the seat, which may give him an advantage in the runoff. Regardless of who wins, it will be a competitive race in the general election in a district that has been trending purple in recent years. “The challenge with McCaul is that he has been able to prepare for this race since January 2019,” said Siegel, adding, “He’s also incredibly independently wealthy, and while he has been fine fundraising on his own so far, he could write himself a $5 million check tomorrow and kind of take this race off the grid.”

TX-17: Former Rep. Pete Sessions, who lost to a Democrat in 2018 in the state’s 32nd district, is trying to make his way back to the House in the open-seat contest to replace retiring Rep. Bill Flores in Texas’s 17th congressional district, which includes the city of Waco. But Sessions may have some trouble regaining entry given that Flores has endorsed the other candidate in the race local businesswoman Renee Swan. 

“It’s been a unique race in that the outgoing incumbent, I think, has really played an outsized role in trying to shape the field and the battle lines,” said Svitek. “He wanted someone with stronger roots in the district than some guy who just represented Dallas for a long time.” Svitek told JI that Sessions may be the slight favorite in the district given his name recognition. “But I think it’s going to be a close race, regardless.”

TX-24: Two Democrats are running in a competitive district for the chance to succeed Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-TX), who is retiring at the end of his term. Kim Olson, a former military pilot, is something of a “mini-celebrity” in the state thanks to her run for Texas agricultural commissioner two years ago, said Svitek. “It looked like she was going to be the candidate to beat in this current race,” he said. Candace Valenzuela, a young progressive candidate of color, got into the race a little later than Olson and had a pretty slow fundraising start. 

But then Valenzuela picked up the endorsement of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Emily’s List, as well as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Although Olson has been the top fundraiser in the race, Svitek said, Valenzuela has caught up with her and surpassed her in the most recent period. “Valenzuela has really built considerable momentum in this runoff,” he told JI.

TX-22: Two far-right candidates — Kathaleen Wall and Troy Nehls — are vying to succeed Republican Rep. Pete Olson, who isn’t seeking re-election, in this district in the Houston suburbs. Wall, a wealthy Repulican donor, is almost exclusively self-funding her campaign, Svitek pointed out. Nehls, a sheriff in Fort Bend County — which Svitek said contributes to about 70% of the vote in the district — has struggled to raise money, but has a solid base of support. “He just seems to cultivate loyalty among his followers,” Svitek told JI.

Wall, for her part, lost her bid for Congress last cycle in a separate district in Texas. “It was kind of an embarrassing loss for her,” Svitek said. And Nehls has some “vulnerabilities in his law enforcement background” that may put him at risk in the general election. Whoever emerges victorious will face stiff competition from Sri Kulkarni, the Democratic opponent who won his primary outright and lost to Olson by less than 5 percentage points last cycle. “If you look at the competitive districts in Texas, on paper, that one is maybe middle of the pack, but I think because of the current dynamic there, where you have a really strong candidate who’s already won his primary in Kulkarni, and you have this very messy runoff between these two candidates with unique flaws, I think that that district has kind of moved up the ranking.”

An Air Force vet and a state senator face off in a Texas primary runoff for the Senate

In the Texas primary runoff scheduled for July 14, two Democrats — M.J. Hegar, a white, female veteran of the United States Air Force, and Royce West, an African-American state politician — are competing for the chance to go up against Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the powerful Republican incumbent who has held onto his seat for nearly two decades.

If that sort of matchup sounds familiar, it’s likely because it is reminiscent of Kentucky’s recent Democratic primary battle in which Amy McGrath, a white former Marine fighter pilot, narrowly defeated Charles Booker, a Black state representative who benefitted from a late-stage surge in popularity thanks in part to mass protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The same dynamic has altered the political landscape in Texas, as the demonstrations “have turned what would have otherwise been a pretty easy victory for Hegar into a competitive contest,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the department of political science at Rice University in Houston.

Still, heading into the runoff, West has struggled to harness the national mood to his benefit. The most recent polling on the race, released on Sunday and conducted by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, found that Hegar, at 32%, leads her opponent by a comfortable margin of 12 points among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.

Royce West

Those numbers may reflect the fact that West, the longtime 67-year-old state senator, isn’t exactly an up-and-coming progressive, despite a legislative record that includes efforts to reform the criminal justice system. “Royce West is an institutionalist,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He’s an insider and longtime member of the Texas Senate, so he is more of a moderate than a progressive among Black politicians and among Democrats.”

West seemed intent on maintaining that impression in a recent conversation with Jewish Insider. Though he supports the ongoing protests, advocating for a national standard around the use of deadly force, he also made sure to note that he has had positive interactions with the police. Shortly after he got his driver’s license, he said, an officer pulled him over for speeding and gave him a stern lesson on vehicular safety. “I never have forgotten it,” the longtime state senator recalled. 

Asked to name a political role model, West mentioned Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Texas-born president and senator. He cited Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, Master of the Senate, noting that he hadn’t read the whole book, which is more than 1,000 pages. “I’ve read a few pages of it, though.”

You don’t hear a lot about LBJ these days, but Jillson said that West’s comment makes some sense. “Royce, I think, is saying there that he’s a deal-maker,” Jillson told JI, “that he’s an insider and that he’s tried to understand what the person on the other side of the table needs in order to deliver a product, in order to deliver a compromise, a bargain.”

For her part, Hegar, 44, has sought to avoid any sort of conflict with West, even as the race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks. Throughout her campaign, she has focused largely on Cornyn, with the implicit assumption being that she will be the one to face him in November.

Hegar is the candidate with the most out-of-state institutional support. She is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as Emily’s List, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and J Street. 

Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient who completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan, ran for Congress in Texas’s 31st congressional district two years ago, attracting national attention with a viral ad. Hegar lost by less than 3 percentage points to Rep. John Carter (R-TX), but she believes she will fare better this time around. 

Though the pandemic has disrupted campaigning, Hegar — who has raised more than $6.6 million, according to the Federal Election Commission — maintains that she has “planted the seeds for a grassroots movement,” having spent the first year of her Senate bid driving tens of thousands of miles around the state.

Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient, completed three tours in Afghanistan with the United States Air Force.

In an interview with JI last week, Hegar expressed concerns about “racial injustice,” but seemed more at ease discussing foreign policy. 

“So much is falling by the wayside as far as not grabbing headlines that I think is very concerning,” she said, noting that the U.S. was losing its influence abroad. “We’re losing a lot of that position with this America-first kind of isolationist platform, with gutting our State Department,” she said. “Those kinds of things are really damaging our ability to operate globally.”

Hegar is also critical of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. “I’m going to advocate for policies that come from national security experts and advance the long-term goal of peace without sacrificing safety,” said Hegar, who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t believe his plan does that. I don’t think anyone’s surprised because the way he develops his plans seem to be through nepotism and what’s best for his party or speaking to his base instead of what’s best for the country and what’s best for our allies.”

Hegar added that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal was a mistake. “It wasn’t perfect,” she said. “I do think it was a practical step in the right direction. The president acting unilaterally to abandon it and escalate confrontation with Iran — which he’s shown a willingness to continue to do — has really put troops and our allies at risk and has led us down a path toward what would be a very costly and destabilizing war.”

“I think that we should be partnering with the international community,” Hegar told JI. “I know some people like to shoot from the hip and be a cowboy. And I don’t believe that we should be losing any of our autonomy — I do believe we’re the leaders of the free world — but I think that that mantle is delicate and fragile, and we will lose it if we don’t act as such. And we are not acting that way now.”

West, who has brought in nearly $1.8 million in donations, was more comfortable discussing police reform than foreign policy in his interview with JI. He supports a two-state solution as it was “outlined in the Clinton Paramaters [sic],” according to a position paper, and expressed a desire to visit Israel if he is elected to the Senate. “Israel is our strongest Democratic ally in the Middle East, and so America should be supportive of Israel,” he said.

But he hesitated when asked for his opinion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS. “Remind me of what the acronym stands for?” he asked. After he was reminded, he said he did not support the movement. 

West also appeared to support rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, but seemed somewhat hazy on what that would involve. “The fact is, I don’t know all the details of the plan, but any type of plan that we have can always be reviewed to improve upon,” he said. “So I would not be opposed to reviewing it to see whether we can improve upon it.”

Fluency on foreign policy matters, however, is unlikely to swing the runoff in either direction. But because West has struggled to leverage the national mood in his favor, experts predict that Hegar will likely advance to the general election in the fall.

Whether she can beat Cornyn remains to be seen. 

The senator will be tough to unseat, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “He’s got pole position — more money, better name identification and a veteran Texas campaign operation — he can define [Hegar] early and she might not have the money to respond unless she can raise Beto money,” Rottinghaus told JI, referring to former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who raised more than $80 million in his ultimately failed bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Still, Hegar maintained that she is ready for the fight. 

“The primary and the runoff feel a little bit like I’m in an aircraft flying to go pick up a wounded soldier or civilian,” Hegar told JI, “and we’re talking about the difference between having a disagreement with someone in the cockpit about tactics and how we’re going to roll in versus the guy on the ground pointing an RPG at me.”

Cornyn, she made clear, is the guy with the rocket launcher.

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