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.”

David Perdue and Jon Ossoff address antisemitism ahead of close election

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) has strong words against antisemitism. 

“Antisemitism has no place in society, period,” he told Jewish Insider in a candidate questionnaire. “It’s horrifying any time you see hate perpetrated against Jewish people in the United States or anywhere around the world.”

Despite his emphatic beliefs, Perdue’s opponent in Georgia’s upcoming Senate election, former journalist Jon Ossoff — who is Jewish — has argued that Perdue himself has recently perpetrated antisemitic hatred. 

In late July, Perdue’s campaign tactics came under scrutiny when the first-term Republican senator published a Facebook ad that enlarged Ossoff’s nose — a classic antisemitic stereotype. A spokesman for Perdue told The Forward, which first reported on the image, that the edit was “accidental” and the ad would be removed from the site. 

But Ossoff wasn’t buying it. “This is the oldest, most obvious, least original antisemitic trope in history,” the 33-year-old Democratic candidate wrote in a Twitter statement when the ad was publicized by national media outlets. “Senator, literally no one believes your excuses.”

(Read the complete Perdue and Ossoff questionnaires, along with many others on JI’s interactive election map.)

Perdue did not mention the ad in his responses to the JI questionnaire, which includes a question asking candidates whether they believe there is a concerning rise of antisemitism, including in their own party.  

“I’ve been a friend of Israel and the Jewish community since I was very young,” the senator averred. “Since I got to the U.S. Senate, I’ve made fighting antisemitism and all forms of bigotry a top priority. Unfortunately, we saw this issue at the forefront in 2017 after a string of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers across the country. That was unacceptable, and I worked with national security officials in the Trump administration to make sure there would be a long-term strategy to protect these JCCs and other places of worship.”

For his part, Ossoff also chose to not directly address Perdue’s controversial ad in responding to JI’s questionnaire, despite his previous caustic statement directed at the incumbent. 

“Sectarianism and racism often increase at moments of great social, economic, and political stress — especially when dangerous political demagogues like Donald Trump deliberately inflame mistrust, resentment, and hatred to gain power,” Ossoff told JI. “Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have increased in America as President Trump has deliberately pitted Americans against Americans, stirring up conflict within our society rather than uniting us to move forward together as one people.”

But Ossoff’s answer could also have been regarded as an implicit critique of Perdue’s reelection tactics. “I learned about public and political leadership from my mentor, Congressman John Lewis, who taught me to focus on our shared humanity above our racial, religious and cultural differences,” Ossoff continued, referring to the Georgia representative and civil rights leader who endorsed Ossoff before his death on July 17. 

“My state, our country and all humanity will only achieve our full potential and build the Beloved Community [a term coined by Lewis] by recognizing that we are all in this together, that our interests are aligned and that hatred, prejudice and discrimination only hold us back.”

Despite the tension between the two candidates, both emphasized their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“Any peace deal should protect the political freedom and human rights of all people in the region and ensure Israel’s security as a homeland for the Jewish people without threat of terrorism or invasion,” Ossoff declared. “The aim of the peace process should be secure and peaceful coexistence, political freedom and prosperity for people of all faiths and nationalities in the Middle East.”

“Obviously there is no simple fix but a two-state solution would be the best outcome for both sides,” Perdue told JI. “However, that won’t happen unless the Palestinians are willing to come to the table, negotiate in good faith and cut ties with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Palestinian Authority has to end their practice of providing stipends for known terrorists. It’s ridiculous and the reason I support the Taylor Force Act. We’ve got to make sure the United States isn’t sending foreign aid until these payments end. Israel has made it clear that they are open to living in peace with the Palestinians. You’ve seen a willingness by Israel to begin negotiations. The Palestinians must do the same in order to solve this issue.”

Perdue and Ossoff also both expressed their commitment to ensuring that Israel maintains its security edge in the Middle East. 

“The special relationship between the U.S. and Israel is deeply rooted and strategically important to both countries, but it cannot be taken for granted,” Ossoff told JI. “Security cooperation, trade and cultural ties enrich and strengthen both countries. The U.S. Congress, with strong bipartisan support, should play an essential role in maintaining and strengthening healthy and open relations between the U.S. and Israel.”

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is both special and strategic,” Perdue said, while noting that his first foreign trip as a senator was to Israel. “It is special because we share the common values of freedom and democracy, and it’s strategic because Israel is America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”

“President Trump has shown that Israel is and will continue to be a priority,” Perdue added. “By moving our U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the president recognized the historic and modern reality that Jerusalem is the center for the Jewish people and all parts of Israeli government. Jerusalem is unquestionably Israel’s capital.”

Still, Perdue and Ossoff differ when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Perdue supports Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement. “President Obama’s Iran deal was an unmitigated disaster,” he told JI. “It’s very clear that the Obama-Biden Administration’s weak foreign policy only emboldened Iran and made the world less safe. Trusting Iran to change was not only naive, but it also created a national security risk for our ally Israel.”

Ossoff disagrees, with qualifications. “Nuclear weapons proliferation is one of the gravest threats to U.S. and world security,” he said. “I support robust efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons anywhere. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would pose an existential threat to Israel and other U.S. allies and would pose a critical threat to U.S. national security.”

“I opposed the Trump administration’s unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA,” he added. “In the Senate, I will support U.S. participation in an agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, whether based on the JCPOA, another multilateral agreement or a desperately needed new global nuclear arms reduction and nonproliferation treaty.”

Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 congressional bid, is hoping he can best Perdue in November’s election as the Democrats are strategizing to flip the Senate. The Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss-up.”

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.”

Sens. Booker, Portman cosponsor legislation addressing Arab anti-normalization policies

In a bipartisan effort to ease decades of tensions between Israel and Arab states, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced legislation on Thursday that would require the State Department to provide an accounting of countries that punish individuals for engaging with Israel.

The bill, “Strengthening Reporting of Actions Taken Against the Normalization of Relations with Israel Act of 2020” would require the State Department to include a status report on anti-normalization laws in countries covered by the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in its annual Report on Human Rights Practices. The requirement would run from 2021 to 2026.

(Read the full text of the bill, S.4482 – “Strengthening Reporting of Actions Taken Against the Normalization of Relations with Israel Act of 2020”.)

The legislation includes a provision stating that the Arab League “has maintained an official boycott of Israeli companies and Israeli-made goods since the founding of Israel in 1948.”

A number of Arab countries have laws punishing citizens for interacting with Israeli citizens and businesses. The Arab League first issued a formal boycott of Jewish businesses in 1945, three years prior to the formation of Israel. Afterwards, the League modified the ban to include secondary businesses affiliated or trading with Israel.

In a statement to Jewish Insider, Portman said, “I am proud to join Senator Booker on this bipartisan legislation which supports our ally Israel and the longstanding US policy that encourages Arab League states to normalize their relations with Israel.”

“Anti-normalization laws in the region continue to be a barrier toward communities, people, NGOs and business coming together. In my visits to the region, I’ve seen the deep and abiding friendships that exist, and they are essential to building a long term peace,” Portman continued. “This bill will discourage those Arab League states that continue to enforce anti-normalization laws and support efforts like those proposed by the Arab Council that encourage and defend community engagement amongst Arabs and Israelis.”

“Since my time in the Senate, I have consistently supported Arab-Israeli engagement,” Booker said in a statement. “The need for people-to-people engagement between these communities is not only a critical tool for diplomacy but also important for peace and economic prosperity in the region. Our bill will strengthen America’s commitment to pursuing peace by supporting and encouraging dialogue between Arab and Israeli citizens.”

The bill cites a number of organizations and groups working in support of normalizing relations. 

The Arab Council for Regional Integration, one group praised in the bill, applauded Sens. Booker and Portman for sponsoring the legislation. “We are gratified that at a time of turmoil around the world, two prominent U.S. Senators have decided to stand with advocates of people-to-people engagement between Arabs and Israelis,” Arab Council co-founder Mostafa El-Dessouki told JI. “Civil society has always been the ‘missing piece’ in efforts to forge a just and lasting peace in our region. This bill will empower the many bridge-builders among us to move forward toward a ‘peace between peoples.’”

On Sunday, the leadership for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization released a statement praising Portman and Booker. “This bipartisan measure takes action against [anti-normalization] policies and promotes the process of further regional normalization with Israel, which is critical to achieving a genuine and lasting peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.”

Despite acrimony, Loeffler and Collins walk in virtual lockstep on Israel

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) are locked in an acrimonious battle ahead of the U.S. Senate special election in Georgia on November 3. Collins, who represents a portion of northeastern Georgia, entered the race to compete against Loeffler shortly after she assumed office in early January, having been appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp against the objections of President Donald Trump, who favored Collins for the seat.

But when it comes to Israel, the two Republican candidates hold virtually indistinguishable views, according to questionnaires solicited by Jewish Insider and filled out by the candidates. 

Loeffler and Collins both support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, endorse Trump’s Middle East peace plan, back continued foreign aid to the Jewish state and believe that the administration was right to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered by former President Barack Obama.

“We knew from the beginning that any deal negotiated by the Obama Administration would not go far enough to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or to protect Israel from a nuclear Iran,” Collins wrote in response to questions from JI, echoing Loeffler, who said that Iran had “only become more emboldened in its efforts to attack U.S. interests and U.S. allies like Israel” during the time that the deal was in place.

(Read the Collins and Loeffler questionnaires, and many others, on Jewish Insider’s interactive election map.)

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Loeffler and Collins — both of whom have positioned themselves as Trump loyalists — hold harmonious views. 

“I agree with President Trump that, especially given Israel’s agreement to terms for a potential Palestinian state, a two-state solution is a pragmatic approach that respects the validity of Israel and its people while giving Palestinians the opportunity to self-govern and remain in their communities,” Collins wrote. “Within a two-state solution, it is imperative that Israel remain the ultimate guardian of holy sites and Jerusalem to ensure all who want to worship in these sacred places will continue to have the opportunity to do so. It is also imperative that, in any agreement, Israel has defensible borders to continue to protect themselves from any future attacks.”

The senator’s response was similar. “It has become increasingly clear that a two-state solution is the best path to peace in the Middle East, and I support President Trump’s historic efforts to deliver Israel the security and autonomy it needs to prosper,” she said. “Like President Trump, I believe that any path to peace must recognize undivided Jerusalem as the capital and territory of Israel.”

Loeffler added that “any Palestinian nation must be strictly policed to ensure that the violence perpetuated by Palestinians (especially through Hamas) comes to an end so that both the Palestinians and the Israeli people can fully prosper.”

Both candidates cited their records on the Hill supporting aid to Israel. Collins, for his part, pointed to legislation he introduced in 2013 to bolster Israel’s defense interests, while Loeffler noted that she was a co-sponsor of the United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act, “which will send additional funds to Israel in order to upgrade its military equipment, improve its ground force, strengthen its missile defense system, and expand the U.S. weapons stockpile in Israel.”

The candidates also agree that there is a concerning rise of antisemitism in the U.S., but reserve judgement only for the Democratic Party. “Sadly, we have witnessed this rising tide of antisemitism in Congress over the last several years,” Collins said, “with a growing number of members in the Democratic Caucus voicing their support for the BDS movement, which attacks Israel’s very right to exist.”

Loeffler went a step further in her questionnaire, calling out Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) who, according to the senator, “has repeatedly called Israel evil and openly called for the dissolution of the nation state of Israel.” She was also critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, she wrote, “continually endorses the BDS movement and has called Israel an ‘apartheid state.’”

Loeffler and Collins are running in a competitive special election that includes two formidable Democratic opponents: Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Matt Lieberman, son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT). 

Should no candidate clear 50% of the vote on November 3, then the top two candidates will advance to a runoff to be held in January.

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.

Norm Eisen was in the room where it happened

Norm Eisen describes himself as an optimist. It’s that positive thinking, he believes, that kept him from deep disappointment after President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate in early February on two articles of impeachment resulting from issues of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Eisen, the White House special counsel for ethics and government reform under President Barack Obama, wasn’t surprised by the decision to acquit the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But he does take comfort in the idea that the vote — which presented a unified Democratic front, and a bipartisan effort on the charge to remove Trump from office — presented a strong case for voters to consider when they head to the polls in November. 

In a new book out today, A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump, Eisen offers an exclusive look at the behind-the-scenes discussions and deliberations — as well as his conversations with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the only Republican to side with the Democrats on one of the charges — he had as the majority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial. 

“One of the few things that everyone agreed on in the impeachment trial was that whether to convict or to acquit the president was up to the American people,” Eisen said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “The House managers and we, the lawyers, felt that the Senate should have taken that responsibility. But since they didn’t, it was now a case for the American people. And that is why I wrote the book, so that the job that I helped begin can be completed when all Americans vote on the president’s behavior in November.” 

Eisen, a lifelong Democrat, goes to great lengths to illustrate that he was originally hoping he could be an asset. Eisen details the help he provided to Chris Christie in the summer of 2016, when the former New Jersey governor served as head of the Trump transition team, as well as to the senior team at Trump Tower after the November election. “I was doing my part to help Donald Trump prepare to take the reins of our government, and side by side with my sadness, I felt some measure of hope that he might do a good job,” he writes. 

“I was not a ‘Never Trumper,’” Eisen told JI, using the term to describe Republicans who refused to support Trump’s candidacy, even after he was declared the party’s nominee. “I tried to help. I have had dinner with the president. I found him to be personable and engaging at the time. I am acquainted with his daughter [Ivanka] and his son-in-law [Jared Kushner]. Once he was elected, he was going to be the president of all of us, and I was prepared as a patriotic American to do what I could to help.”

The gesture blew up in Eisen’s face as he watched the first post-election press conference, in which Trump declared he would not divest from his businesses. “That press conference was the moment when my hope for the Trump presidency was lost,” he writes. From then on, Eisen was a vocal critic of the president and his family over ethical transparency and conflict of interest matters. “That was the breaking point for me,” he said. 

Over the course of the Trump presidency, Eisen has seen a spike in Twitter followers — now at 271,000 — attributable to his frequent media appearances and outspokenness on rule of law. “But I would gladly go back to 5,000 Twitter followers to get rid of [Trump],” Eisen told JI. 

In February 2019, Eisen, who was a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, was hired as the House Judiciary Committee’s special counsel building the case for the impeachment of Trump. Eisen questioned witnesses in committee hearings, helped to draft the articles of impeachment, and assisted Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) and other House managers during the Senate trial.

Norm Eisen makes case

Eisen reveals in the book that, working with Nadler and co-counsel Barry Berke, the team had prepared 10 articles of impeachment against Trump, but in the end settled on just two in order to get the requisite support from legislators. “I believe that gave the country a structure to understand Trump’s bad actions,” Eisen told JI. “Often I get asked, wasn’t it a mistake to do impeachment since he was acquitted? Absolutely not, because you wouldn’t have the third stage of the rocket most fundamentally, you wouldn’t have the American people fully understanding what’s happening now.”

The decision to move toward impeachment following the 2019 Ukraine scandal, Eisen told JI, wasn’t a rushed one. While he was disappointed with the outcome of former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Eisen believes the Mueller findings helped the House committees demonstrate a pattern of presidential misconduct. According to Eisen, 135 Democrats supported impeachment by the end of the August recess, up from 95 following Mueller’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee in July. 

“Think of the impeachment as a rocket that has three stages. There was the booster rocket — the Mueller report. Ukraine was the second stage that pushes you further along, and this book and the national debate that the nation is having now about the president’s response to coronavirus is the third stage,” he explained. “But all three stages are the same. Instead of working for American interests, to save American lives and help our country, it’s all about what’s good for the president’s personal and political interests.” 

Eisen, who served as ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014, said that he was very careful to avoid contact with foreign officials and with some of his colleagues in the diplomatic corps during the trial. But now that the trial is over, “many people around the world have said to me, ‘America is so strong because you can still hold your president accountable.’ A president cannot do this kind of thing and just get away with it like in other countries,” he said. “Foreign leaders were very impressed with the effort.”

“So even though the work is not done yet, it will be finished,” Eisen said, with hope in his voice. “It won’t be a success unless it has the right outcome of impeaching him, the people impeaching him in November.” 

In the book, Eisen describes Nadler as a ‘mensch’ and details the close friendship the pair developed in recent years, including a shiva call in the fall of 2018 when Eisen mourned the death of his brother. “For all his haimish (down-home) ways, from our earliest conversations it struck me that Jerry was exactly the man to take down Trump for his constitutional violations, if anyone could,” Eisen writes. 

“This book has the most Yiddish in it of any impeachment book ever written; maybe the most Yiddish book ever written about the inner workings of the American government,” Eisen quipped, “because Jerry Nadler and I are shtemming from similar roots.”

In the interview, Eisen used a unique Yiddish term to describe Nadler’s overall approach: yo yo, nisht nisht — which translates to “you either do it or you don’t.” 

“He’s not ‘waffly,’” Eisen told JI of the longtime New York congressman. “He makes up his mind, what is the right thing. If it’s right, yes. if it’s wrong, no — and he drives forward. I felt comfortable with that kind of a strong moral compass. He’s a straight shooter. I felt at home.” 

Among the details of the impeachment process, the book is also a reflection of Eisen’s personality. Throughout the book, Eisen details his own thinking and offers a personal look into his work. “The book is full of my own mistakes,” he said. “I think you should not write a book that talks about other people unless you write about yourself. You should be toughest on yourself [out] of everybody.”

Eisen said that as a public figure taking on Trump, he felt targeted for being Jewish. He pointed to comments made by Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) during an inquiry hearing last December, referring to Berke as a “New York lawyer,” which was perceived at the time as an antisemitic dog whistle. Eisen said the remark had “a demeaning effect that caused me to stiffen. That can be a common code word, as in ‘New York Jewish lawyer.’ I shrugged it off the first time, but when he did it again my temper flared up,” he writes. 

Eisen, who along with Nadler and some of the House managers are Jewish, suggested that “the mere presence of any single Jew, no matter how large the crowd is, the antisemites are always going to seek him or her out, and that happened.” Eisen said.

“That being said, in this beautiful mosaic of America, there is a role for the Jewish people,” he said. “Baruch Hashem we have a very active [role] to play in America and that is, we make a big contribution. I’m very proud of that. I am proud of my Jewish identity.”

Looking back, Eisen believes Romney’s vote for one of the articles of impeachment made the Senate vote on Trump’s impeachment a truly historic moment for the county. “I did not feel sad,” Eisen said of the president’s acquittal. ”I don’t think people would be awake the way they are to what’s happening without all of the warnings.” But he added that it took Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic for public opinion to turn dramatically against the president. Eisen compared the situation to a person waking up only after the third alarm rings in the morning. 

Commenting on the 2020 presidential race, Eisen said Jewish voters shouldn’t judge Trump just by his pro-Israel record, particularly given Biden’s longstanding support of Israel. “I feel that the president’s pathological selfishness also represents a danger to the State of Israel, because this is somebody who’s fundamentally interested in only himself,” he explained. “So for the moment, Israel suits his interests and serves his interests, but he could turn in a moment. Look how he’s turned off some of the people around him. If he felt it turns against his interest, I believe he would sacrifice Israel in a heartbeat.” 

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.

Alaska Senate candidate Al Gross hopes his outsider status will propel him to D.C.

Al Gross is an ideal Senate candidate — at least by Alaskan standards. 

The 57-year-old former orthopedic surgeon entered the state’s Democratic primary race last summer as an independent. In an introductory ad, a gravelly voice-over narration touted his rugged background as a commercial fisherman, itinerant ocean hitchhiker and gold prospector who once killed a grizzly bear in self-defense. (It snuck up on him while he was duck hunting some 40 miles south of Juneau.)

Gross’s compelling story has caught the attention of the national media as he competes in the state’s August 18 primary for the chance to challenge first-term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan in November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently upgraded the race from “solid” to “likely Republican,” giving the Democrats a glimmer of hope as the party attempts to flip the Senate in November.

Though Gross is running as an independent, he has support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who attended Amherst College with Gross, offered an enthusiastic assessment of his former classmate in a statement to Jewish Insider

“He’s a lifelong Alaskan with a deep understanding of the complex policies that impact our environment, our healthcare system and our place in the global community,” Coons said in his statement. “Al is informed, passionate and will legislate in a responsible and progressive way to protect Alaskans — and all Americans. He will be a valuable ally who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He’s a different kind of candidate, and he will be a strong voice in the U.S. Senate.”

Gross is confident that he can defy the odds and oust Sullivan this cycle, pointing out that Alaskan voters have a strong tendency to favor independent candidates. The Alaskan-born candidate’s father, Avrum Gross, was a Democratic attorney general who served under Alaskan Gov. Jay Hammond, a Republican who represented the state from 1974 to 1982 and whom Gross described as a “role model and a friend” during his formative years. 

“That relationship and friendship is why I registered as an independent when I was 18,” Gross told JI in an interview, “because it was always about working together for the betterment of the state.” 

Gross, who is Jewish, has long felt like an outsider in a state that takes pride in them. His bar mitzvah, he said, was the first ever in southeast Alaska — his parents flew in a rabbi for the ceremony — and there were only a few Jewish kids in his Juneau high school. 

“I’ve been a minority, and that’s what I’ve known since I was a young kid,” he said. “We joke that we’re the ‘frozen chosen’ and the ‘extreme diaspora’ up here.”

He got the chance to explore his “cultural heritage,” as he described it, after graduating from high school in 1980, when he took a year off to travel and work odd jobs. During that time, he spent four months in Israel, three of them volunteering on Kibbutz Gat in southern Israel. 

“Spending those four months in Israel really had a profound effect on me,” Gross said, “coming from the biggest state in the country to one of the smallest countries in the world and seeing and understanding the security concerns of Israel.”

“It made me feel a part of a larger community,” he added. “It made me understand some of the issues that I’d been reading about from afar and seeing what Jews throughout the world were going through, and I’ve carried that knowledge back home to Alaska as an adult.”

When it comes to geopolitical dynamics in the region, Gross supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken a unilateral approach that he sees as ineffective. 

“It’s critical that the Palestinians be part of that discussion,” Gross said. 

Gross has similar complaints about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. 

“I was very disheartened to see Trump pull out of the JCPOA,” he told JI. “I think we should go back into negotiations with the Iranians to ensure that they do not develop a nuclear weapon. But we need to go back to the table with them and negotiate with them, rather than just unilaterally pull out of a prearranged agreement.”

Al Gross family photo
Al Gross, his wife, Monica, and their four children. (Facebook)

Gross believes that antisemitism is alive and well, even in a remote state like Alaska. 

“It’s something that we can’t ignore, and it’s something we’re going to be living with, probably, well into the future,” he said. In high school, he said, his son experienced antisemitism when a classmate wrote the word “Jew” on the back of his jacket in black magic marker. “Just when you think there isn’t any antisemitism, it rears its ugly head.”

“I’m not convinced that legislation by itself is going to solve the problem,” he said. “I think education is the best place to start. People are fearful of the unknown, and I think a lot of people don’t understand what the Jewish religion is or what Jewish people are like, and they’re afraid of them.”

If elected, Gross would be the second Jewish senator from Alaska in a state that has only had eight senators since it achieved statehood in 1959. The first was Ernest Gruening, who served from 1959 to 1969.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has hobbled campaigns across the U.S., Gross avers that his message has only become more relevant in the crisis. He left his profession in 2013, got a masters in public health and now advocates for lower healthcare costs.

“I felt like I had a wide open avenue to race with my platform long before COVID-19 came along,” he said. “Now that we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it really underscores the need to address some of the healthcare problems that we have in our country and to send people to the Senate who have an understanding of our healthcare system.”

Gross believes he is in tune with the concerns of everyday Alaskans. “I think I have some really good ideas as to how to develop an economy that succeeds in Alaska — that isn’t so critically dependent on natural resource extraction,” Gross said. “Dan Sullivan has nothing other than the status quo to offer, which isn’t working.” (Sullivan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

In the primary, Gross is competing against Democrat Edgar Blatchford, a former Alaskan mayor and an associate professor in the department of journalism and communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and another independent, Chris Cumings, who previously ran for Alaska’s House at-large seat in 2018, garnering only 8% of the vote in the Democratic primary.

Al Gross
Edgar Blatchford

Blatchford and Cumings both told JI that they have largely vowed to abjure political donations, which gives Gross a sizable advantage in the primary. He has raised more than $3 million in his effort to unseat Sullivan, according to the Federal Election Commission.

While experts say Gross is very likely to win the primary, his buccaneer bonafides may not be enough to give him a victory in the fall. 

“He ticks a lot of boxes,” said Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But, she added, while Gross has strong and prominent advertising, “the odds are just against Al” in a state that consistently trends red and that went for Trump by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016.  

Forrest Nabors, a political scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, was also skeptical that Gross would emerge victorious in the general election, using a baseball analogy to suggest that he wouldn’t bet on the candidate’s prospects. 

“Right now,” he said, “it’s kind of like the Yankees playing Baltimore.”

Still, there are occasions in which the Orioles beat the Yankees, and Gross is banking on such a dynamic as he enters the final four months of the race. 

“I stepped forward because I thought I could win,” he said. “The state very much will swing to the middle if the right candidate is there, and I think I’m in a position to win.”

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. 

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