PHILADELPHIA – Mike Branhut knew it would be an uphill battle to recruit Republican votes at the predominantly Jewish Saligman House for seniors. But that didn’t stop him from showing up at 6 a.m. Tuesday to help set up voting machines in the recreation hall of the apartment complex, and handing out flyers that touted Republican candidates.
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“The building I work in is mostly retired Jewish voters,” said Branhut, a maintenance man in the complex.
“I think they’re still voting for Franklin Roosevelt,” added Branhut, wearing a Tshirt adorned with the names of GOP candidates in his allday effort to win over voters.
His overtures didn’t much affect Isabel Paul, who described Roosevelt as “like the messiah” to her family after the Depression.
Throughout her life, the 76- year-old retiree has voted Democrat in almost every election, and this year was no exception, even if she didn’t care much for the candidates running on the statewide Pennsylvania ballot.
“I voted a straight Democratic [ticket], not because I like the people – I don’t – but because I don’t want to put the Republicans in power,” she said.
Determining whether the party controls Congress has weighed heavily on Pennsylvania voters; the highly contested race here for the US Senate was seen as one of a handful that would determine whether the GOP takes control of the legislative branch. Polls showed the House almost certainly going Republican.
The power in the hands of Pennsylvanians – and the national spotlight on their preferences – seemed to boost turnout early in the day, including at the Saligman House voting station. One official said that, as of noon, the voter turnout was even higher than in the 2008 presidential election.
Though it’s rare that a turnout during a midterm election tops that of presidential elections, several polling sites reported very high turnout for an off-year.
By press time at midday, voter participation in the northern Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham Township was on track to reach 65 or even 70 percent – a third more than usual, according to election monitor Mitchell Zygmund-Felt.
“There has clearly been more participation and earlier turnout,” he said. “It’s a terrific turnout.” He felt “the amount of spending, and the amount of publicity, and the amount of noise for [these elections] have all motivated people to come out.”
Zygmund-Felt said the Jewish community, which makes up a significant percentage of the area, was particularly energized by the emphasis the two US Senate campaigns gave to Israel.
Still, pocketbook politics were dominating the election, even among many Jewish voters. “Israel is an important issue, but I think social security is a more important issue.” So opined Burt Siegel, a former executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council and a lifelong Democratic activist, describing how the older Jewish voters in the Philadelphia area would likely react.
And nationwide, economic concerns were expected to give Republicans the 40 additional seats needed to take over the 435-member House of Representatives – and possibly, the 100-member Senate.
Anger at government spending and continuing high employment fueled the conservative Tea Party movement; the latter endorsed Pennsylvanian Republican Pat Toomey over Democrat Joe Sestak in their race for the US Senate.
And the Tea Party pulled off several primary wins, with many established candidates embracing, at least in part, its deficit-cutting, anti-tax agenda.
A Republican takeover of even one branch of government would put a major crimp in Obama’s domestic priorities; the president is already facing difficulty and flagging popularity.
But it would have less effect on Obama’s foreign policy, over which the
executive branch has more power and is given more deference.
The Republicans most likely to take over Democratic seats, including
those of a few Jewish members, are largely seen as strongly supportive
of Israel, and tough on Iran. However, differences have emerged over the
issue of foreign aid, which many Republicans, particularly those
connected with the Tea Party movement, would like to see curtailed.
Several influential Republicans have said that Israel’s aid could be
considered in a separate category to protect its funding, but the
suggestion has raised the hackles of some in the pro-Israel community.
The backers of Joe Sestak, hoping to win over the Jewish community, have
used Pat Toomey’s votes against aid to Israel (when Toomey served in
Congress) as a major line of attack, while Toomey supporters have
rejected the notion that these votes were directed against Israel rather
than spending excesses. Toomey supporters have countered by attacking
Sestak for his affiliation with the progressive J Street lobby, with
national organizations weighing in.
Campaign dollars from across the US have flowed into Pennsylvania and
other battleground states in record amounts, where politically diverse
populations don’t give either party a lock on elections.
The money was largely spent on advertising, which in Pennsylvania,
became nasty. Many voters, including Paul, said it turned them off the
“People didn’t like the campaigns. When the commercials came on, you hit
mute,” she said. “I thought about not voting period – but you can’t
complain if you don’t vote.”