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Top row: Merav Ben-David, Elaine Luria, Lee Zeldin, Sara Jacobs, Jon Ossoff. Bottom row: Kim Schrier, Josh Gottheimer, Kathy Manning, Max Rose, David Cicilline.Tablet Magazine
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The Tablet Ten

Jews running for Congress this fall who are worth keeping an eye on, whether or not you’re Jewish

by
Armin Rosen
September 08, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Top row: Merav Ben-David, Elaine Luria, Lee Zeldin, Sara Jacobs, Jon Ossoff. Bottom row: Kim Schrier, Josh Gottheimer, Kathy Manning, Max Rose, David Cicilline.Tablet Magazine

Neither Bernie Sanders nor Michael Bloomberg wound up making history—at least not in the narrow sense of winning an electoral contest no Jew had ever won before. But both campaigns were important signifiers of the prominence and the diversity of American Jewish political participation in the early-to-mid-21st century. Jews range from nationally adored Vermont socialists to tiny, out-of-touch billionaires to widely reviled senior Trump advisers and in-laws. This fall, they are contending for office at just about every level in an election year in which at least half the country is convinced that a given outcome will doom America to permanent dysfunction.

American Jews were never so monolithic that the idea of a “Jewish” impact on American political life ever made much sense to anyone who wasn’t a conspiracy theorist or a fanatical bigot or reverse-bigot. But in a time of slow- and fast-boiling crisis, Jews are still just about anywhere you look in American politics, even in places you might not necessarily expect them to be. Here are 10 we think are worth keeping an eye on:

Merav Ben-David: Though it’s the 10th-largest state in size, Wyoming is nevertheless a small dot on the map of Jewish America. The odds of an Israeli-American representing the place in the Senate by this time next year are still pretty long: Wyoming is about as red as it gets, and Ben-David’s opponent was in Congress as recently as 2017. But the 61-year-old Rehovot-born scientist is an intriguing figure even as a candidate. She is a professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, where, per her faculty bio, she studies “the transport of nutrients from sea to land as a model system” with a focus on the highly complex relationship between bears and salmon. She studied and worked in Alaska during the early part of her scientific career—a photo shows her calmly embracing two polar bear cubs amid a snowed-over wilderness—and has been teaching in the Cowboy State for the past two decades.

The chances she wins are vanishingly small. But if she somehow pulls it off, Ben-David would automatically become one of the most interesting people in the entire Upper House.

Kim Schrier: The Jewish pediatrician became the first Democrat ever to represent Washington’s 8th congressional district when she entered office in 2019—although interestingly, the district, which was created in the early 80s, hadn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.

In Congress, Schrier has largely focused on public health and agriculture-related issues and placed herself towards the center of the Democratic caucus. The fact she holds an especially swingy swing district is reason enough to watch her.

David Cicilline: The Rhode Island Democrat and former Providence mayor’s star turn came last month when Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Sundar Pichai appeared before a Cicilline-chaired meeting of the House antitrust subcommittee. Four of the most powerful men on earth were briefly at the mercy of the populist-minded left-winger, who has served in Congress since 2011.

Big tech is one area in which popular opinion has shifted on both sides of the American political divide: Democrats distrust the tech giants for their user-data mining and failure to police allegedly dangerous political speech; Republicans see tech as a behemoth of cultural and political liberalism. Both ideological wings have evinced alarm over the companies’ allegedly anti-competitive practices. Whatever happens in November, Cicilline will be at the center of one of the country’s most important emerging cultural, economic, and political battles.

Josh Gottheimer: Since reaching Congress in 2017, the 45-year-old New Jerseyan has staked out a position as the most pro-Israel Democrat in the lower chamber. Gottheimer has been a key voice in just about anything related to the Jewish state in Congress, and he has stood against major segments of his own party in opposing the conditioning of American military aid to Israel.

With Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey now gone, the former Bill Clinton speechwriter is likely to become the face of support for Israel within his party almost by default. He’s also going to become even more of a target for the activist left than he already is—even just two terms in, Gotthemier’s already one of the biggest annoyances for the many Democrats who want to change the party’s stance toward Israel.

Sara Jacobs: A retirement and a free-for-all jungle primary in California’s 53rd District set the stage for the rare competitive congressional general election between two members of the same party. Jacobs is a 31-year-old alumna of the State Department, UNICEF, and the second Hillary Clinton presidential run. Her opponent is San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, who would become the first queer Latina member of Congress in American history. The top-finishing Republican in the district’s 2018 primary has endorsed Jacobs, and noted, perhaps unhelpfully, that his erstwhile opponent is a granddaughter of one of the founders of Qualcomm and therefore believes in capitalism. Meanwhile Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Gomez.

However it ends up, this race seems destined to become a talking point in the perennial debate over where the Democrats are heading.

Elaine Luria: In the blue wave of 2018, Luria defeated the incumbent—a former Navy SEAL—to flip congressional representation for Norfolk, Virginia, site of one of the largest military bases on American soil. A relative moderate with formidable national security credentials, the 45-year-old former Navy commander soon emerged as a persuasive advocate for Donald Trump’s impeachment. Luria has been a handy counterexample for Democrats who want to prove their party isn’t moving in a uniformly Squad-like direction. Like Staten Island’s Max Rose, she’s also a potential model for the kind of Democrat who can win in whatever remaining nonrural red districts might happen to still exist.

Kathy Manning: One of these red districts is North Carolina’s 6th, outside of Greensboro, whose boundaries were recently redrawn by court order. The retirement of the Republican incumbent gave Manning—an immigration lawyer, activist, and nonprofit executive—another shot at a congressional race after she lost the contest for the state’s 13th Congressional District in 2018. Manning, who is in her mid-60s, was the first woman to chair the board of the Jewish Federations of North America. Whatever her positions on Israel might turn out to be, it seems likely she at least understands the country to be a real place rather than an ideological abstraction: Manning is on the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.

Jon Ossoff: The 33-year-old former congressional staffer turned media executive made history in 2017, when he was on the losing side of what was then the most expensive congressional contest of all time. The telegenic Ossoff, an Obama-style Democrat who became a national figure even in the course of his defeat, seems destined for elected office one day. Could that day be November 3rd, when he’s up against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue?

Polls show a tight race, with Ossoff trailing within the margin of error. Control of the Senate could conceivably hinge on this one.

Max Rose: The now 33-year-old turned New York City’s red district blue when he became Staten Island’s congressional representative after the 2018 wave.

As a Democrat filling one of the last remaining Republican seats located inside the borders of a major city, Rose, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient for his service as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, is in one of the strangest positions in American politics. He’s handled the anomaly with great skill: Few Democratic officeholders of his stature have been as openly critical of the party’s activist left flank. At the same time, Rose supported the Trump impeachment and has openly feuded with both the president and Rudy Giuliani.

Lee Zeldin: The Long Island lawyer and Iraq War veteran is the most prominent Jewish Republican in the House, and thus one of the president’s highest-profile Jewish supporters. While Zeldin doesn’t enjoy an Adam Schiff or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez level of pseudo-celebrity, the 40-year-old is nevertheless one of the House’s young rising stars and a potential face of the next generation of his party: He served on Trump’s impeachment defense team, lauded the administration’s coronavirus response in a prime-time convention speech, and acted as a key validator for Trump’s Israel policies. He could still find himself out of a job soon.

As the congressman for a swath of middle- to upper-middle-class suburbs, Zeldin represents exactly the kind of district that’s turning blue all over the country, and polling shows him just about tied with his Democratic opponent. Zeldin’s prospects for survival are dubious if Biden leads a second 2018-type blue wave, since the pro-Trump incumbent would need some not-insignificant number of Trump opponents to vote for him. The loss of a Republican representative from the New York suburbs would further polarize America’s blue population centers and its red periphery, but for Jews the end of Zeldin’s congressional career might prove especially significant. With Zeldin gone, there would no longer be brand name Jewish members of Congress in both parties, and the number of nationally significant Jewish Republicans on Capitol Hill would plummet all the way down to zero. Should this be a source of celebration and relief, or would it be another ominous sign of how the deepening of America’s political faultlines is impacting the country’s Jews? The debate could begin with Zeldin’s defeat on November 3rd.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2020: An earlier version of this article misidentified Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI) as Jewish.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2020: An earlier version of this story misidentified Morgan Murtaugh as a former opponent of Sara Jacobs. In fact Murtaugh ran for the seat in 2018.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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