November 13, 2018
This time, the experts got it right. As predicted, Democrats took over the House of Representatives and Republicans retained control and strengthened their majority in the Senate. Although the “blue wave” was perhaps not as strong as some expected, a Democratic majority in the House—presumably led once again by Rep. Nancy Pelosi—rearranges the political landscape. While gridlock is likely, it’s also possible that reducing the influence of the House Freedom Caucus could create more opportunities for compromise between the House and Senate, and between Congress and the President.
Issues to Watch
Immigration, campaign finance, investigations, and infrastructure are likely to take center stage in the House right off the bat—investigations, of course, being the most divisive. The House and Senate will also consider the trade agreement recently renegotiated with Mexico and Canada and possibly other trade deals. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a post-election news conference, indicated a willingness to work with House Democrats on infrastructure and funding issues, barring anti-Trump harassment.
On immigration reform, the perennial and perennially frozen issue, there is still hope for a compromise package, including a permanent solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children avoid deportation. But with a divided Congress, administration demands for border wall funding (the ask is $25 billion) and the recent threat to abolish birthright citizenship may complicate overhaul efforts. Ducking the issue of the migrant “caravan,” McConnell did express hope that he could deliver on the President’s requests for the border wall and security.
Foreign Policy Expectations
Despite Republicans maintaining control of the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee will have a new Chair. Sen. Bob Corker—a friend of AJC and a pragmatist—is leaving the Senate and will be replaced by Sen. Jim Risch, of Idaho, an enthusiastic supporter of the President on most issues. While serving as Chair of the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, he has kept a relatively low profile on foreign policy issues; two weeks before the election, he issued a statement supporting President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. His leadership will be complemented by Sen. Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, who will almost certainly remain Ranking Member. Menendez, a champion when it comes to combating the threat posed by Iran, fought off a fierce challenge to keep his seat.
In the House, New York Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel will likely lead the Foreign Affairs Committee. He has promised to prioritize oversight of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, both of which have been reorganized by the administration, and to investigate allegations of Trump administration conflicts of interest abroad. Engel has also pledged to work to strengthen the U.S. response to Russia’s election interference. There are a few possible replacements for top Republican on the committee, as current Chair Ed Royce is retiring; likely contenders include Mike McCaul of Texas, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, and Chris Smith of New Jersey. Any of those members would certainly continue Royce’s notable track record of holding Iran to account and working to curb terror; all, along with Engel, are seasoned and active supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
The next Congress will be missing some longtime AJC friends and allies and leading voices in supporting Israel, pursuing peace in the Middle East, and standing up for democratic values and human rights for all. Beyond the aforementioned Sen. Corker and Rep. Royce, we note with sadness the departures of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, who is retiring, and Rep. Peter Roskam, R-IL, who was defeated for re-election. Roskam was a co-Chair of the congressional Bipartisan Taskforce for Combating Antisemitism, a stalwart opponent of a nuclear Iran, and the introducer of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which seeks to expand existing U.S. anti-boycott laws to cover international governmental organizations that engage in boycotts of Israel. Ros-Lehtinen, also a Taskforce co-Chair, is a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and current Chair of its Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa; she has been a fierce proponent of human rights and opponent of authoritarian regimes from Cuba to Iran, from Nicaragua to North Korea, and was the introducer of the U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act (along with Rep. Ted Deutch), a bill that now bears her name. While we mourn her departure, we welcome her successor, Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration and former President of the University of Miami, who traveled to Israel with AJC’s Project Interchange in 2010. Both Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter Roskam leave tremendous legacies for which AJC will long be grateful. We look forward to continuing to work with these leaders in their next endeavors.
Israel was a hot-button topic in many races. Several progressive Democrats who will enter the House in January caught fire for statements about Israel and the conflict:
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset New York congressional institution Joe Crowley in the primaries and, at 29, will becoming the youngest woman ever elected. Early in her primary campaign she accused Israel of committing a massacre in Gaza and then admitted that she needs to “learn and evolve.”
- Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, will be one of the first Muslim women, and the first of Palestinian descent, in the House come January. Tlaib was on record in support of two-state solution, saying: “the U.S. should be directly involved with negotiations to reach a two-state solution.” Additionally, she stated that she supports all current aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, particularly to fund initiatives that “foster peace, as well as economic and humanitarian services.” Later, when asked whether she supported a one-state or two-state solution, her response was different: “One state. It has to be one state. Separate but equal does not work.”
- Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, a Muslim who came to the U.S. as a Somali refugee, saw one of her tweets from 2012 become famous: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
AJC looks forward to engaging these new members on issues of Israel’s security, the quest for a durable political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, threats to peace and stability—as well as potential opportunities for cooperation—across the Middle East, and other matters.
A number of highly competitive races may have hinged on candidates’ records on Israel, leaving no doubt that it will continue to be a prominent issue in the 116th Congress. Worth noting are CNN exit polls that found Jews comprising 2 percent of the vote and opting for Democratic over Republican House candidates, 79 to 17 percent.
In a heated race for the open seat for governor of Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) was criticized for being supported by groups that endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. He defended himself, arguing that he has traveled to Israel three times, strongly supports the Jewish state, is opposed to BDS, and will work for a two-state solution. In the end, this could have been a factor in what appears to be his close loss (a recount is now underway) to Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis. Both spent a great deal of campaign time wooing South Florida Jewish voters.
In the 7th Congressional District of New Jersey, Democratic candidate Tom Malinowski, a former Obama administration official, was blasted by Rep. Leonard Lance, the pro-Israel four-term Republican he sought to unseat, for backing the nuclear deal with Iran. Malinowski defended his pro-Israel bona fides and defeated Lance.
In Virginia, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine was unsuccessfully challenged by Corey Stewart, a fringe alt-right candidate with antisemitic ties. In the closely watched 5th Congressional District race, Republican Denver Riggleman beat Democratic candidate Leslie Cockburn, a journalist and filmmaker who authored Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship, a book described by The New York Times as “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake.”
Republican first-term Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, in Pennsylvania’s 1st District, defeated Democratic challenger Scott Wallace, a multi-millionaire philanthropist who was criticized for funding groups that endorse BDS.
There will certainly be challenges and opportunities for pro-Israel advocacy in the new Congress, and experience has proven that, once elected, members sometimes speak and vote differently from the rhetoric they employ during campaigns. Assumptions and ideologies new members bring to office may be influenced and may evolve; they also may affect the positions adopted by their parties.
It is important to note, though, that party structures on Capitol Hill are generally strong—and, at present, the leadership of both parties, with long legislative track records and a history of ready access, is consistently supportive of Israel and the Jewish community. There are great friends of AJC, and staunch supporters of Israel, in both parties and in both houses of Congress. We can’t and won’t take them for granted. We have worked with them, we will continue to work with them, and we will also try to meet those who disagree with us—on Israel or any issues—to educate, engage, and work toward centrist, meaningful policy solutions that are beneficial for the United States, our interests, our values, and our allies.
Jewish Faces in Congress
Jewish incumbents will retain significant clout in the Senate and are now positioned as chairs of important committees in the Democratic-controlled House.
In the Senate:
- Sen. Chuck Schumer will remain Minority Leader.
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) will continue as Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee.
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will continue as Ranking Member of the Budget Committee.
- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) will continue as Ranking Member of the Finance Committee.
In the House, Jewish incumbents are now positioned for powerful new roles:
- Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) is expected to chair the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
- Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is expected to chair the Committee on the Judiciary.
- Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) is expected to chair the Committee on Appropriations.
- Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) is expected to chair the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
During this midterm cycle, Jews made up 6 percent of the candidate pool—a significant number, considering the percentage in the overall population is less than 2 percent. Though Jewish challengers were all over the ideological spectrum, those who saw success on Tuesday are all Democrats.
There were 16 Jewish Republican candidates, all of whom lost except the two incumbents: Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, New York, who held off a Jewish Democratic challenger, and Rep. David Kustoff, of Tennessee.
In January, there will be eight Democratic Jewish Senators and one Independent (Sen. Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats). The new Jewish face will be Rep. Jacky Rosen, of Nevada, a former synagogue president who served one term in the House before running for the seat held by Republican Dean Heller.
The 115th Congress had 22 Jewish Representatives; the number is likely to increase to 27 in the 116th. [Full list at end.]
Two Jewish Representatives will leave the House for higher office. In addition to Rep.—soon-to-be-Sen.—Rosen, Rep. Jared Polis is making history by becoming both the first Jewish governor of Colorado and its first openly gay person to serve as Governor. Another successful Jewish candidate for high office was Democrat J.B. Pritzker, who unseated incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois.
We note with special appreciation for his friendship and service the retirement of Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan who, as the Jew with the longest tenure in Congress, has chaired the unofficial Jewish caucus in the House of Representatives. For 36 years, Levin has been a champion of human rights and the protection of minorities and a proponent of principled American leadership in the world. Levin will be replaced by his son, Andy. Rep. Levin, 87, is the older brother of retired Sen. Carl Levin, D-MI.
Another new Jewish face from Michigan is former Obama administration official Elissa Slotkin. Other Jews entering the House are environmental attorney Mike Levin, who replaces Darrell Issa in California; attorney and public servant Susan Wild of Pennsylvania; entrepreneur Dean Phillips from Minnesota; Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient Max Rose, who defeated Rep. Dan Donovan, of Staten Island, the only Republican representing a part of New York City; Dr. Kim Schrier of Washington (who was inspired to run for office in the aftermath of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville); and Elaine Luria, a Jewish retired Navy pilot and Commander and small business owner from Virginia.
Also worth noting are incoming Reps. Antonio Delgado (D-NY), who has a Jewish wife and children; David Trone (D-MD), who also has a Jewish wife and children; Angie Craig (D-MN), who is married to a Jewish woman and has raised a Jewish family; and Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), an Air Force veteran who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.
Representative Diversity in the 116th Congress
Other minorities also saw noteworthy gains. From Native American women and a Somali refugee, to black and Hispanic women, the 2018 midterm elections brought a series of history-making votes that marked major accomplishments for women and other minorities.
More women ran in congressional primaries this year than ever before, mostly as Democrats. This election cycle, we witnessed a record number of women contesting seats in the House of Representatives, yielding a historic tally of female victors across the political spectrum: 117 women will serve in the 116th Congress, bringing the share of Congress members who are women up from the current 20 percent to at least 22 percent.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, will become the first female senator from Tennessee, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, will became the first female senator from Arizona. The Georgia governor’s race is too close to call and may be headed for a recount. Should Democrat Stacey Abrams—lagging in the current tally--ultimately take the post, she will be the first black woman governor in the U.S.
Democrats Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico will be the first Native American women elected to Congress. As previously noted, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar will become the first Muslim women in Congress. Ayanna Pressley will be Massachusetts’s first black woman in Congress, and Jahana Hayes earned the same distinction from Connecticut.
Texas voters elected the state’s first two Hispanic women to Congress as Democrat Veronica Escobar won the seat to replace Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the congressional district near El Paso, and Democratic State Sen. Sylvia Garcia won a Houston-area district. Garcia traveled to Israel with AJC’s Project Interchange in 2000 and will take the place of retiring Democratic Rep. Gene Green, who also traveled with Project Interchange.
Divisiveness and Hate During the Election Cycle
When AJC issued an analysis of the 2016 election it began, “The 2016 presidential election will long be remembered for its divisiveness, its focus on temperament over policy, its obliviousness to fact-checking, its occasional and embarrassing vulgarity. For AJC, rigorously nonpartisan and committed to civility in the defense of democratic pluralism, it will also be remembered as the election that tested America’s resistance to populist intolerance, and that saw the emergence of antisemitism as a political instrument to a degree not witnessed in more than half a century.”
In the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” On the right and the left, candidates—both incumbents and challengers—engaged in heated, polarizing rhetoric.
Ultra-progressive candidates embraced Louis Farrakhan and criticized Israel in a way that made Jews and others rightly uncomfortable, employing terms like “genocide,” “massacre,” and “apartheid,” and supporting the nefarious BDS movement. There has always been a fine line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism; in this election cycle that line often seemed to be drawn in invisible ink.
While they did not attract the same public attention (in part because, thankfully, their electability was weaker), there were also deeply concerning Republican candidates, individuals who failed to draw a clear line when it comes to neo-Nazis and the like, and who espoused antisemitism. This midterm cycle featured several candidates who denied or minimized the Holocaust and promoted white supremacy. One House candidate offered a $2,000 reward for anyone who could substantiate his view that the Holocaust is a fabrication (but vile robocalls supporting his candidacy that began with screams from Schindler’s List he rebuked).
The deadly violence that stunned the nation the week before Election Day could have united the country—and in some ways it really did. AJC’s #ShowUpForShabbat campaign brought millions to synagogues to express support, including more than 40 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and numerous candidates as well. However, politically speaking, the violence on display in Pittsburgh, and the killing of two black shoppers at a Kentucky supermarket, sharpened the partisanship defining the campaign cycle and the political sphere writ large.
Campaign ads accused candidates of teaching terror, profiting off the pain of cancer patients, and sneaking out of the country to have sex with minors. An anti-immigrant ad that stoked fear of the migrant “caravan” seeking to reach the U.S. border, created by President Trump’s campaign committee, was pulled from television because CNN, NBC, and Fox News deemed it too racist to air.
A “super PAC” backing the Republican incumbent in the second congressional district of Arkansas funded a radio spot (aired on stations popular with black listeners) depicting two women discussing the Kavanaugh hearings. One woman says that if the Democrats are willing to presume the guilt of a “white justice of the Supreme Court” with “no evidence” and “no corroboration,” then “what will happen to our husbands, our fathers and our sons when a white girl lies on them.” The other woman replies, “White Democrats will be lynching black folk again.” The closing line is, “We can’t afford to let white Democrats take us back to the bad old days of race verdicts, life sentences, and lynchings when a white girl screams rape.”
In the 19th Congressional District of New York, the National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad against the Democratic candidate, an African American Rhodes scholar who released a rap album in 2007. Referred to as a “big city rapper,” Antonio Delgado was described as “not like us.” The ad paints Delgado as unpatriotic with a lyric that says, “God Bless Iraq.” But the full lyric is: “God Bless America. God Bless Iraq. God Bless Us All.” Delgado narrowly won, defeating first-term Republican John Faso.
In California’s 50th Congressional District, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Latino-Arab American, was accused of being supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and labeled a “security risk” in an ad. The incumbent, after claiming that Campa-Najjar had changed his name to hide his identity as an Arab, warned that “radical Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government. You had more Islamists run for office this year at the federal level than ever before in U.S. history.” Never mind that Campa-Najjar is a Protestant. The ad may have had an impact; the incumbent, the recently indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter, kept this seat.
Across the country, campaign ads and mailers depicted nearly a dozen Jewish candidates with stacks of money, reprising an age-old antisemitic trope.
These ads come at the same time as conspiracy theories about George Soros, the “Jewish financier,” bankrolling the caravan of immigrants walking to the border. Soros is also regularly pegged as the funder of any and all anti-fascist protests. A NRCC-funded TV ad against a candidate in Minnesota portrayed Soros as a puppet master behind huge stacks of cash. The ad, entitled “owns,” tries to link the Democratic congressional candidate with Soros, “leftwing mobs,” and NFL protests, concluding with ghostly images of Soros and Colin Kaepernick behind burning barrels of cash.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has served eight terms in the House and won again handily this election, was rebuked just before the election by the Chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee for comments he made criticizing diversity, immigration, and George Soros. In an interview with members of a far-right party in Austria with Nazi ties, he linked Soros to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory in which white Europeans are replaced by minorities. King has a long history of spewing racist views: In 2006, he called for an electrified fence on the border; in 2013, he said that illegal immigrants had “calves like cantaloupes” from hauling “75-pound bales of marijuana across the desert;” in 2016, he displayed a Confederate flag on his office desk; in 2017, he declared that “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies” and said that he wanted an America “so homogenous that we all look the same.”
As the election neared, the rhetoric—amplified by social media—grew so toxic and pervasive that a national conversation ensued about whether real violence was being incited. George Soros, along with prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were recipients of mail bombs. The home of a Jewish supporter of Rep. Josh Gottheimer—a Jewish member of the House from New Jersey—was defaced three times with swastikas and other antisemitic, pro-Trump graffiti.
Roughly three-quarters of those polled by CNN in exit polls said that extremist violence was an important factor in deciding their vote for the U.S. House. A quarter said it was the single most important factor. Few said that extremist violence was a minor or not a factor in their vote. Unsurprisingly, three-quarters of those polled believe Americans are increasingly divided politically.
For an organization that has always worked to bring people together around shared ideals and goals, the shocking disunity in our country is a call to action. As a strictly non-partisan organization that seeks to advance moderate, centrist policy solutions, the stakes have rarely been higher. With a divided Congress and a looming Presidential election, we will approach all with an open mind, a listening ear, and an abiding hope for a more civil union. Restoring civility, curbing the spread of antisemitism and other bigotries, creating coalitions of conscience, pushing back against the fearmongers and hyper-partisans, working with the new Congress, the administration, and our civil society partners to assure Israel’s security and America’s principled leadership in world affairs – these are the tasks before us.
Julie Rayman is AJC Director of Political Outreach. Jason Isaacson is AJC Associate Executive Director for Policy, and Managing Director of Government and International Affairs.
Jewish Members of the 116th Congress
Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)
Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Brian Schatz (D-HI)
Bernard Sanders (I-VT)
Charles Schumer (D-NY)
Ron Wyden (D-OR))
New: Jacky Rosen (D-NV)
House of Representatives
David Cicilline (D-RI)
Steve Cohen (D-TN)
Susan Davis (D-CA)
Ted Deutch (D-FL)
Eliot Engel (D-NY)
Lois Frankel (D-FL)
Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ)
David Kustoff (R-TN)
Alan Lowenthal (D-CA)
Nita Lowey (D-NY)
Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)
Jamie Raskin (D-MD)
Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)
Adam Schiff (D-CA)
Brad Schneider (D-IL)
Brad Sherman (D-CA)
Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
John Yarmuth (D-KY)
Lee Zeldin (R-NY))
New: Andy Levin (D-MI)
New: Elissa Slotkin (D-MI)
New: Mike Levin (D-CA)
New: Susan Wild (D-PA)
New: Dean Phillips (D-MN)
New: Max Rose (D-NY)
New: Kim Schrier (D-WA)
New: Elaine Luria (D-VA)