LOWER MERION TOWNSHIP – One day, months before the race to represent Pennsylvania in the US Senate entered the homestretch, Democratic candidate Joe Sestak arrived at his campaign office to find it practically empty.“Where is everybody?” Sestak told The Jerusalem Post he had asked at the time, only to be told it was Pessah. That’s how he found out that nearly half his staff was Jewish.RELATED:Jon Stewart's 'sanity rally' blends laughs and activismThe Lion's Den: Israel and congressional DemocratsBut on Monday, the day before Americans finally head to the polls, Sestak’s headquarters in this strongly Jewish suburb of Philadelphia was packed with enthusiastic volunteers who cheered as the candidate urged them to turn out every Democratic voter, in what is expected to be an extremely close race with Republican competitor Pat Toomey.Amid walls festooned with Sestak campaign signs and ward maps, supporters were manning cellphones and computers to try and hold off Toomey in an election cycle where fears about the economy and anger at Washington have given Republicans an edge.Republicans are expected to gain the majority in the US House of Representatives, and a few key races, such as the Toomey-Sestak faceoff, are expected to decide which party controls the Senate.The Pennsylvania Senate campaign has attracted the attention of national politicians – with US President Barack Obama himself visiting the state repeatedly – as well as Jewish activists on both sides of the aisle. Sestak, for all his Jewish staffers, has repeatedly had to defend his record on Israel.“I’ve never seen an election like this before,” said Lance Rogers, chairman of Lower Merion Township’s Republican Committee, referring to the role Israel has played in a statewide contest. “This race has gotten a lot of attention in the Jewish community.”Last week, the Republican Jewish Coalition armed supporters in the area with literature attacking Sestak for taking money from J Street after it was revealed that billionaire George Soros contributed to the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby and for Sestak’s signing onto a letter pushed by J Street calling for easing the Gaza blockade on humanitarian grounds.Their criticisms echoed those made by the newly formed Emergency Campaign for Israel earlier in the race.Sestak, speaking to the Post after addressing the volunteers at his office here, defended signing the Gaza letter, which he stressed was focused on the humanitarian situation, as well as receiving money from J Street.“I’m an American. They’re American. I think anyone who tries to stifle ideas is not helpful,” he said.He also described himself as having a “100 percent voting record” on legislation backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and said that the security of the State of Israel is of “utmost concern” as well as a major security interest for the United States.
Sestak, a current congressman and former navy vice-admiral, pointed to his life experience in explaining his support for Israel. He noted that he’d visited the Jewish state at least eight times, including serving on a US naval vessel stationed offshore in the Mediterranean. Sestak’s backers have countered with newspaper ads attacking Toomey, who once served in the US House, for voting against aid to Israel seven times.Toomey could not be reached by the Post by press time, but Rogers denied that the former representative’s votes on aid contained any animus against Israel.Instead, he emphasized, they were provisions of legislation that included spending on other items that Toomey, a strong fiscal conservative, opposed.“To suggest that it was his motive to vote against Israel is disingenuous, because he’s proved throughout his tenure in Congress that he’s a supporter of Israel,” Rogers said.Rogers pointed to the Orthodox community in the township as a key engine in the Israel debate between the candidates.Lower Merion Township has a notable Orthodox presence, but they’re not the majority of the Jewish community here, which usually votes overwhelmingly Democrat. The overall makeup of the state, however, is politically diverse and makes for a close matchup between Republicans and Democrats.Sestak’s stop at campaign headquarters in this district, acknowledged local Jewish activist Bonnie Squires, wasn’t aimed at winning new voters hours before the election.“The liberal, progressive Democrats in the southeast suburbs [of Philadelphia] will be supporting Joe Sestak” on Tuesday, she said.“He’s revving up the vote,” she explained. “Joe’s an admiral and he needs to lead the troops and this is D-Day.”David Broida, who has been behind advertising in area Jewish newspapers in support of Sestak, was also making the rounds of local campaign headquarters.Wearing a Sestak sticker on his leather jacket and a small “chai” earring in his left ear, the 65-year-old member of the Lower Merion Township Democratic Committee declared, “It’s a battle to get votes.”