Only hours after she was appointed chair of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) was labeled “the girl from J Street” by several right-of-center blogs and blasted by the Republican Jewish Coalition for her connection to the pro-Israel, pro-peace process group — even though she had rejected its endorsement and its money.
Welcome to Campaign 2012.
Up and down the ballot, from the presidential contest to local races, J Street will be the latest wedge the Republicans hope to drive between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party.
“J Street has become the new Palestinians,” said Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist and director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies. “There’s little doubt that in an effort to get more of the Jewish vote, the Republicans will make J Street an issue — and there’s little doubt in my mind that in the end, that will appeal only to those Jewish voters who have been voting Republican for years.”
But some Jewish Republicans say the focus on J Street — and the fact it is funded, in part, by financier George Soros — could crystallize in Jewish voters’ minds the longstanding GOP argument that the Democratic Party has lost its moorings when it comes to Israel.
And there’s always the question of Jewish campaign money — which some argue is the real target of Jewish GOP outreach. While Jewish votes are hard to shift from the Democratic to the Republican side of the ledger, hammering hard on charges of softness on Israel can pay dividends in terms of campaign cash for the Republicans.
Wasserman Schultz’s ascension in the party reflects the geographic and demographic realities the Democrats face in what is expected to be a very difficult election year for the party.
Once again, Florida could be poised to play a major role in a presidential election, with its big Jewish population a significant — if not likely decisive — factor.
“Wasserman Schultz is perceived as one of the major political forces in the state,” said Wald. “She’s an unbelievably good fundraiser, and her organizational skills are very good. She effectively chaired the Obama campaign in Florida in 2008; winning it was a remarkable accomplishment. So was holding on to the Jewish vote.”
She is also young, attractive, media-savvy and has a compelling personal story of successfully battling cancer while serving in public office and raising a family, other analysts say.
Her Jewishness, along with her status as a leading Florida politician, were undoubtedly factors in her selection by President Barack Obama, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who added one more.
“Prominent Democratic women have been complaining of late that Obama simply hasn’t appointed many women to the very top positions — the ones who are in the room when decisions are made,” he said. “The Obama staff disputes this strongly, and has a long list of women appointees, but perception hardens into reality quickly. Given all of DWS’s other strengths, this seemed like a good way to quiet the criticism about the ‘boy’s club.’”
In the Democratic congressional caucus on Capitol Hill, Jewish members now hold two key positions that focus heavily on fundraising and recruiting good candidates to run for House and Senate seats. In addition to Wasserman Schultz’s new role as DNC chair, Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.) chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the group charged with electing more Democrats to the House.
Wasserman Schultz, 44, representing portions of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, was elected to Congress in 2004 after serving in both houses of the Florida legislature, replacing her longtime political mentor, Rep. Peter Deutsch, who left his seat in an unsuccessful Senate bid.
As a member of Congress, her focus has been largely domestic, with strong pro-choice and gun-control positions that put her squarely in the party’s ideological center. She also has worked closely with Jewish groups.
William Daroff, vice president for public policy of the Jewish Federations of North America and a former RJC official, said Wasserman Schultz is “one of the most capable and committed leaders in Congress. During her meteoric career, she has shown herself to be a staunch defender of Jewish communal concerns — fighting for women who are high risk for cancer, leading efforts to help Holocaust survivors, being a stalwart proponent of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and literally creating Jewish American Heritage Month. Her heartfelt dedication to the Jewish federation movement is unparalleled in the halls of Congress.”
It was her sponsorship of 2006 legislation declaring every May to be Jewish American Heritage Month that tied the lawmaker to J Street.
In 2009, Wasserman Schultz co-hosted a reception with J Street to celebrate the annual event; the honoree was Hadar Susskind, then an official with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) who was soon to move on to J Street as policy director. Capitol Hill insiders depict her Middle East views as tilting toward the dovish side, but possibly not as far to the left as J Street’s positions.
J Street insiders point out that Wasserman Schultz has never accepted J Street money or sought the group’s endorsement and that she was conspicuously absent from its second national conference earlier this year. Additionally, she has generally not signed on to J Street-sponsored letters.
That didn’t stop the Republican Jewish Coalition from issuing a press release headlined “New DNC Chair Endorses Fringe Anti-Israel Group.”
The RJC director, Matt Brooks, said in that statement, “We are deeply troubled by incoming DNC Chairman Wasserman Schultz’s embrace of groups, such as J Street, that undermine Israel’s security. In blindly conferring legitimacy for fringe groups like J Street, she has raised serious questions about her own credibility and judgment.”
That prompted a quick response from the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), which accused the Republican group of “playing politics with Israel again.”
In a statement, NJDC CEO David Harris said, “For Jewish Republicans or anyone to in any way question the stellar pro-Israel record of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is ridiculous and frankly mind-boggling. But to make the suggestions that some have made recently regarding Rep. Wasserman Schultz and Israel’s security is much worse — they are offensive in the extreme.”
Asked if J Street would be a campaign issue next year, the RJC’S Matt Brooks told The Jewish Week, “I certainly hope so. It’s all part of a broader narrative — that J Street is out of touch with the Jewish mainstream on so many critical issues at a time when Israel’s very existence is at risk. It raises questions about the judgment of those who embrace J Street and have accepted its support.”
Brooks rejected claims his group had exaggerated the new DNC’s J Street connections.
“As chair of the DNC, will she continue to participate in J Street, speak at their conferences?” he asked. “Those are legitimate issues that show a fundamental lack of judgment in her past. If she has moved away from the group, she needs to make an affirmative declaration that she was wrong in the past.”
Jewish Democrats say the RJC charges are unfounded.
“There are members of Congress who have well-known strategic partnerships with J Street, and [Wasserman Schultz] is not one of them,” said David Harris, the NJDC leader. Wasserman Schultz helped create NJDC in the 1980s and served as its Florida director. “To suggest otherwise is almost comical outreach.”
Comical or not, the J Street allegations are almost certain to be a major factor in GOP Jewish outreach next year.
Will it affect the Jewish vote? Some political scientists say the odds are against it.
Raphael Sonenshein, a California State University at Fullerton political scientist, said that GOP efforts to depict Democrats as weak on Israel go back decades — and have rarely produced major results.
“Rarely does foreign policy rise to the fore in presidential elections,” Sonenshein said. “In 2012, it will probably play less of a role than ever; both parties have decided that this will be a political war over domestic policy.”
Top issues are likely to be the still-stumbling economy and Obama’s stewardship of it, the big GOP push to slash government spending and its impact on critical entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and the ongoing drama over health care policy.
The all-Israel-all-the-time Jewish GOP strategy could be more problematic this year because “the heart of the Republican Party really isn’t in foreign policy now,” he said. “What they want to talk about is primarily domestic. That’s even truer of voters in general.”
GOP domestic positions — including a major reduction in government spending and health/human services, and perennial social issues such as opposition to abortion — will continue to turn off many Jewish voters, he said.
Still, the J Street focus — as part of the broader GOP effort to paint the Democrats as hostile to the Jewish state — could pay significant dividends.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said, “The percentage of Jews who will vote Republican won’t go over 30 percent no matter what they do, and in all likelihood will be considerably less than that next year. On other hand, there are deep pockets in some sectors of the Jewish community that will be very responsive to these arguments.”
That financial support — from an Orthodox community that is increasingly affluent, increasingly politically active and increasingly Republican and from single-issue, pro-Israel campaign givers — could be a boon to the GOP in a presidential campaign that will inevitably shatter all records for spending.
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