What is the Israel question in America's off-year election?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Israel and the Mideast were not hot topics in any of these races, but the results could still have significant implications.

VIRGINIA REPUBLICAN gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin speaks during his election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, Wednesday night.  (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
VIRGINIA REPUBLICAN gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin speaks during his election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, Wednesday night.

When Americans from Washington state to Virginia, from Florida to Minnesota, went to the ballot box on Tuesday for an off-year election, they were voting on many issues.

They were voting on critical race theory and coronavirus masks in schools; on supply-chain problems and policing; on Joe Biden and Donald Trump. These were elections for a couple of governors, a couple of congressional seats, a handful of mayors, and a slew of state offices. Israel and the Mideast were not hot topics in any of these races. Not at all.

Nevertheless, the results of the elections could have significant implications for Israel.

The dramatic defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe by Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, a state that Biden carried by a 10% margin in 20202, as well as the paper-thin victory of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey, a strongly Democratic state, may presage a loss of Democratic control of the House in the midterm elections next year.

Likewise, the poor showing of progressive Democrats backed either by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) – the poster girl of the ultraliberal “Squad,” which is also hypercritical of Israel – may indicate that in the battle inside the Democratic Party between the progressives and the moderates, between the Biden wing and the wing associated with senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the moderates are gaining the upper hand, a development not without consequence for Israel.

 US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pauses while speaking during a news conference discussing the introduction of rent legislation outside the US Capitol in Washington, US, September 21, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ) US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pauses while speaking during a news conference discussing the introduction of rent legislation outside the US Capitol in Washington, US, September 21, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/ELIZABETH FRANTZ)

The Democrats currently enjoy a slim 221-213 advantage over the Republicans in the House, and the parties split evenly in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the ability to cast the tie-breaking vote there.

But, according to Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Tuesday’s election is an indication that the Republicans will regain control of the House, and likely take back the Senate in 2022, meaning that “many of Israel’s strongest friends will be back in positions of power.”

He was referring to Kevin McCarthy, who would likely replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House if the Republicans gain control, and Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who would replace Gregory Meeks as chairman of that committee.

Republican control of the House and the Senate would, Brooks said, “put increased pressure on the Biden administration as it relates to the Iran nuclear deal.”

Republican control of the House, he further asserted, would mean that the type of “debacle” that occurred over the Iron Dome funding, when a group of Democratic progressives pressured the party to remove $1 billion in funding for the defense system from a bill to keep the United States government funded. This necessitated a special vote on the matter, which passed 420-9, with eight Democrats voting against.

Brooks’s counterpart on the other side of the aisle, Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, bristles at the accusation that it is the Democratic Party that is holding up Iron Dome funding.

The problem, she said, is not with Democrats in Congress, who overwhelmingly voted to fund it, but with Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who is blocking efforts to fast-track the measure through the Senate.

“Mitch McConnell and others in the Republican caucus have allowed him to hijack this bill and effectively block this critical support of Israel,” she said.

Poll after poll may show that Republicans are stronger supporters of Israel than Democrats, a small number of Democratic representatives may make a disproportionate amount of anti-Israel noise, but Soifer stressed that it was Paul of the Republican Party who was responsible for holding up consequential aid for Israel at this time.

“There’s a focus on those eight [Democrats] who voted no,” Soifer said. “Yet when that same funding goes to the Senate and 100% of Democratic senators support it, and one Republican senator is allowed by his party to hijack that funding for more than a month, the same standard is not applied.

Soifer’s point: it’s a mistake to believe that a Republican-controlled Congress would be better for Israel than a Democratic one – just look how a Republican is holding up Iron Dome funding.

Brooks, on the other hand, paints a starkly different picture.

“The Republican caucus is just incredibly and overwhelmingly pro-Israel,” he said. “We just saw a huge showing of their support. All but 10 Republicans signed a letter calling on Biden not to move forward on opening the consulate in Jerusalem. So this is the kind of stuff that you will see – Israel will know that the Republicans in Congress have their back.”

The gubernatorial race in Virginia, he said, is a sign of things to come. “The Democrats thought after the 2020 election that Republican and Independent voters abandoned the party and came over to the Democratic side. But what we see now is that the Democrats didn’t own those voters, they rented them – and those voters who they rented for the 2020 elections came back home in droves to help propel Youngkin to victory.”

Brooks said that the Democrats tried to tar and feather Youngkin with Trump, but it failed because the electorate is more worried about the economy, inflation,COVID-19 and “supply chain problems that are affecting everything in the US right now.”

Israel is not a major issue on the minds of the American electorate. In fact, according to a “flash exit poll” taken by the American Jewish Committee in Virginia on Tuesday, even among US Jews, “Israeli peace and security” was tied with racial justice at the bottom of a list of eight priority issues. The highest priority item was education and schools, followed by jobs and the economy. While Israel was dead last for the 63% who voted for McAuliffe, it was the third-highest priority for the 37% who voted for Youngkin.

This exit poll was conducted by soliciting responses by text message from a current list of Jewish voters in Virginia, with some 400 people responding, so it is far from scientific. If, however, 37% of the state’s 150,000 Jews voted Republican, that would mean a significant increase in the Jewish vote for Republicans. In the 2020 presidential election, the Jewish vote for Trump – depending on the poll – ranged from 22% to 30.5%.

THE REPUBLICAN gain in Virginia, and near upset in New Jersey are not the only results of interest to those looking for clues as to where US policy toward Israel may drift in the coming years. Another indication is what is happening to progressive candidates – those candidates backed by progressive luminaries such as AOC or progressive organizations – and who have expressed highly critical positions on Israel.

And here the news coming out of the elections for Israel was upbeat: the progressives are not taking over the party.

Most significantly, in Cleveland Democrat Shontel Brown easily defeated her Republican challenger. But because her district is so heavily Democratic, this was a foregone conclusion, and the more important race took place in August, when Brown – a pro-Israel moderate Democrat – defeated Nina Turner in the Democratic primary. Turner, backed by AOC and Sanders, had come out in support of BDS and retweeted a tweet accusing Israel of apartheid.

With Brown now going to Washington, Soifer said, “we have one more pro-Israel Democrat elected.” She pointed out that Jews played a “critical role” in that primary victory, in a race where there was a clear distinction in the candidates’ positions on Israel.

In another race, Florida’s 20th Congressional District, only 12 votes separated the top two vote-getters – Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick and Dale Holness – who both have staked out pro-Israel positions in a race to succeed the late Alcee Hastings, a strong African-American supporter of the US-Israel relationship.

While Cherfilus-McCormick was backed by progressives, the Jewish Insider wrote that she is “carving a niche as a pro-Israel progressive.” Omari Hardy, the one candidate in the race who came out in support of BDS and conditioning aid to Israel, and against supplemental Iron Dome funding, finished in sixth place among the seven major contestants.

In New York City, Eric Adams, as expected, won the mayoral election. But there, too, the more telling race was the Democratic primary in June. In that primary, Adams defeated the OAC-backed Maya D. Wiley – another example of the mood inside the party.

In Buffalo as well, an OAC-backed candidate – India Walton – went down to defeat against a moderate Democrat she actually beat in the primary earlier this year, incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, but who then turned around and ran as a write-in candidate.

The one exception was Boston, where Michelle Wu, a progressive protégé of Elizabeth Warren, easily won a victory over a moderate Democrat opponent.

But, as Soifer said, overall “this hasn’t been a great few months from the perspective of progressives that are looking solely at the issue of Israel.”

If, as some argue, what is bad for AOC and the “Squad” is good for Israel, then Tuesday’s results should buoy Israelis.

All politics is local, and Tuesday’s races in America were local elections. But even local politics can have global ramifications, and what these races said about which way the winds are blowing politically in the US in general (as evident by the Virginia gubernatorial race), and in the Democratic Party in particular, will have implications for Israel.

“When America sneezes,” goes the old adage, “the world catches a cold.” On Tuesday the US softly sniffled. For Israel, it is worth taking note.