For weeks, the Jewish community of Chicago’s North and Northwest suburbs had been looking forward to hearing their candidates for the US House and Senate debate one another in a “Candidates Forum” about Israel, the Middle East, and related security matters. While the community tends to vote Democratic, it elected Republican Mark Kirk to represent it in Congress five times and, before that, Kirk’s mentor, the GOP’s John Porter, eleven. So neither side should take their votes for granted. It appears, however, that one does.
Two weeks before the forum, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias who is running against Kirk for the US Senate seat once held by Barack Obama, abruptly pulled out citing “prior commitments.” The next day, Democrat Dan Seals, who opposes Republican Bob Dold for the House seat Kirk is vacating, announced that he, too, was withdrawing his commitment to attend. His reason was that without Giannoulias, the forum would be skewed in favor of the Republicans.
Neither man’s excuse rang true with the voters—and with good reason. The Giannoulias campaign’s story kept changing. It had confirmed their man’s availability back in March, and re-confirmed it more recently, according to forum organizers. When confronted with that fact, campaign manager David Spielfogel then claimed they never accepted the invitation and moreover that the hosting group, Protect Our Heritage PAC is partisan. Yet, the candidates’ appearance at the event had been heavily advertised for months and the Giannoulias campaign never once complained about it. According to Rabbi Victor Weissberg, the host for the event and a highly esteemed clergyman in the community, the Giannoulias campaign then told him they would attend only if he complied with several demeaning and ultimately impossible conditions. By the way, to be clear, these forums have been held for the past 25 years, and this is the first time a candidate has objected to them.
The Seals campaign explained their man’s abrupt pull-out by saying that without Giannoulias, the situation was heavily slanted in the Republicans’ favor and “had become inherently unfair and uniquely weighted against Dan.” That assertion gave many Jewish voters a good laugh. Even in a year when more Jews are expected to vote Republican than they have in decades, the community remains heavily Democratic. Current polls, for instance, show that Jewish support for Democrats has fallen this year—from three out of four to two out of three. In 2008, about 72 percent of Jewish voters cast their votes for Obama. Said Peggy Shapiro, one of the event organizers, “a majority of Jewish voters are still Democrats….And in fact Jewish voters voted for Seals last time.” Yet, neither Kirk nor any other Republican candidate used that as an excuse to avoid this or any other forum.
Speculation in the Jewish community is that the real reason the Dems pulled out were fear, arrogance, and strategy. As one member of the Jewish community noted to me, “If you were Giannoulias, would you want to debate Kirk,” who is widely acknowledged as one of Congress’s most knowledgeable and incisive members on foreign policy matters—and one of Israel’s best friends in Washington? Quite a number of people in the audience echoed that sentiment and also applied it to Dan Seals. “Seals really doesn’t know anything,” one man at the forum told me. “He spent 40 obligatory days in Israel before the last election and never even left the Jerusalem area.” Dold, on the other hand, spoke eloquently about his family’s long involvement with refusemik Lev Schrieber and other matters that clearly moved the largely Democrat-voting audience. Democratic strategists long have taken Jewish votes for granted, and for good reason. The overwhelming Obama vote was the rule rather than the exception. As former Bush White House staffer Jay Lefkowitz wrote in Commentary Magazine, “American Jews do not merely favor Democrats; they are the second most reliable bloc of Democratic voters in the country, exceeded only by African-Americans. One has to go all the way back to the election of Warren Harding in 1920 to find a Republican who gained more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote.” And as more than one strategist told me, “C’mon this is Illinois—one of the bluest states in the union.” The perception among many Democrat candidates in Illinois is that enough people will cast knee-jerk votes for a Democrat so long as he or she does not throw their incompetence in the voters’ faces—and Rod Blagojovich’s re-election in 2006 puts even that qualifier in jeopardy.
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, I attended a debate between the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Richard Baehr and the National Jewish Democratic Committee’s Ira Forman at a synagogue not far from the venue of this year’s forum. During the debate, Baehr raised several issues about then Senator Obama’s association with people like Rashid Khalidi and Bill Ayers and questioned how they might affect Obama’s actions toward Israel. These questions were becoming a real problem for the Obama campaign, and his advocates were working overtime trying to quiet them. Forman, like most of his Democrat colleagues, seemed to take offense at the very suggestion and emphatically said that Obama “would be as strongly pro-Israel as George Bush—more even.” The largely Democrat crowd took him at his word, and now express a good deal of buyer’s remorse for their Obama votes.
Both candidates made it clear that they would strongly oppose those policies and fight any pressure on Israel to make concessions for an ineffective and agreement. They also believe that Israel’s security and our own are intimately tied. Kirk told the audience of a post-9/11 Congressional task force on US aviation safety. Kirk asked the Israelis for some help, and they sent an entire team of their top security experts who gave input and information that is critical to the safety of “every American who flies” today. As one of the Israeli’s told Kirk, “for $3 billion where could you get such a deal.” Kirk also noted defiantly that “the political foundation of our alliance with Israel is not with the White House. It is with Congress”; and that the next Senator cannot simply be a pro-Israel vote, but leader, and that Congress’s “number one supporter of Israel… will be Senator Mark Kirk from the State of Illinois. Dold called Obama’s policies “dangerous for the United States, dangerous for Israel” to a rousing ovation. He also talked about his recent trip to the Arizona border area where local officials directed him to look at the trash on the ground: “’Take a look at the candy wrappers.’ I did. They were all in Arabic….The United States had to protect its border.”
The Democrats’ absence left the field wide open, and Kirk and Dold took advantage of it to introduce themselves to voter who would otherwise automatically vote Democrat. As one area couple told me, “We’re here to listen.” And listen they and others did. Most people knew Mark Kirk and his pro-Israel record, but few knew Dold that well. And according to a Dold staffer, the response went beyond the ovations. “We ran out of lawn signs,” he said, “so many people were taking them as they left.” Moreover, the Dems’ abrupt and disingenuous sounding pull-out angered quite a few Jewish voters who took their action as “a slap in the face,” according to more than one. The fact that 15 area synagogues and clergy co-sponsored the event, considering it crucial for Jewish voters, further exacerbated ill feelings. Even Rabbi Weissberg, who scrupulously maintains a non-partisan atmosphere, told the crowd not to judge Giannoulias and Seals, but not to “look for them in Profiles in Courage Part Two.”
Posted on 08/25/2010 11:18 AM by Richard L. Benkin