Georgia’s Jewish Vote Could Decide Control of the US Senate
Republicans hope Israel stance will be key to victory in runoff elections
Voters in Georgia will not just be deciding the state’s political trajectory on Tuesday, but the country’s as well. At stake is control of the US Senate, and how much of President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda will become reality.
In a state where the presidential race was decided by approximately 12,000 ballots and with the margins in the polls for Georgia’s two Senate runoff races within the margin of error, every vote matters.
With a small but dedicated group of Jewish voters in the Peach State, Jewish Americans could determine which party emerges victorious.
“This is going to be a turnout election. It is going to be essential that each side does everything they can to drive the voters to the polls. … The Jewish community, which numbers 100,000 voters, maybe just under that, could play a pivotal role,” said Bernard Whitman, a Democrat and founder and CEO of Whitman Insight Strategies.
Tuesday’s contests between Jon Ossoff (D), who is Jewish himself, and incumbent David Perdue (R), and between Raphael Warnock (D) and incumbent Kelly Loeffler (R), were triggered as a result of Georgian election law stipulating runoffs after no candidates secured over 50% of the vote in November’s general election.
The majority of the Jewish population lives in Atlanta and the surrounding areas, places that were crucial to Biden’s Georgia victory.
Republicans have a 50-48 majority over the Democrats in those races that have already been decided for the Senate to be sworn-in later in January. However, if both Georgia Democratic challengers win their contests, the Senate will have an equal number of Republican and Democratic legislators, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a Democrat, breaking any tied votes.
With tight runoffs expected, the candidates and their supporters are out in full force trying to get out the vote in the last days of the campaign. All four camps have tried to woo Jewish voters specifically, by issuing open letters to the Jewish community, promulgating their positions on Israel.
“The Jewish vote is important to the future of the entire country and the future as far as our support of Israel and its sovereignty,” Julianne Thompson, a Republican strategist and president of MSN Strategies, a public affairs firm based in Atlanta, told The Media Line.
“This Senate race really will determine a lot in the way the United States continues to deal with Israel going forward under this new Biden Administration because the balance of power in the Senate is going to be determined by this race going on in Georgia,” Thompson continued.
However, most Jews vote Democratic, with close to 80% of the demographic supporting Biden in the presidential election.
Rabbi Mario Karpuj, a dual Israeli-American citizen who voted absentee from Jerusalem, is one such example. He recently immigrated to Israel from Sandy Springs, Georgia, where he was a rabbi at the Ohr Hadash synagogue, affiliated with the Conservative branch of Judaism.
“[Ossoff and Warnock] don’t preach the language of divisiveness that has been affecting politics in America for the last four years,” he told The Media Line. “They support issues like inclusiveness of working for the entire community, taking care of every member of society regardless of their background; the biblical and Jewish values of opening our hands to those who are in need; taking care of the stranger, remembering you were once a stranger [in a strange] land, so they align with me on issues of immigration and equality,” Karpuj said.
Morris Benveniste, a professor of neuroscience in Atlanta who identifies with Conservative Judaism, already voted early for Ossoff and Warnock.
“It’s very important to end Trumpism; it’s so anti-democratic,” he told The Media Line. “Sometimes, I considering how particular [candidates] vote or [their] attitude toward Israel. Conservatives are pretty strong on Israel, the very left of the Democratic Party is not very strong on Israel, but that hasn’t been shaping my vote as of late,” Benveniste said.
Michael Rosenzweig, an Atlanta-based national board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told The Media Line: “I fear that if the Republicans continue to control the Senate and [Kentucky Republican Sen.] Mitch McConnell continues to be majority leader, Biden won’t be able to accomplish much at all. I happen to believe that the Democratic Party generally and Warnock and Ossoff specifically share my values, which I would describe as traditional Jewish values and Democratic Party values, and there’s a good deal of overlap between the two.
“If you look at the Republican Party generally and you look at [Loeffler and Perdue] in particular, they are not all that concerned about those kinds of values, [such as] concern for the other, the downtrodden, the widow, the child, to those who are less fortunate, tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Rosenzweig said.
With such a high percentage of Jews voting Democratic, the Republican Party cannot hope to win the majority of the community’s support.
“Do I think the Jewish vote is going to swing the majority over to Republican candidates? No, I do not,” Peter Korman, who is on the executive committee for the Republican Party in Fulton County (Georgia’s most populous county as it contains Atlanta) as well as the party’s chairman for District 51 of the State House of Representatives, told the Media Line. “But I think a larger share, somewhere between 35 to 40% … will be supporting Republican policies and candidates.
“In the Jewish community here, I see more and more folks swinging to the right of center from left of center. I think they are socially liberal, as I am; I don’t have an evangelical streak in me, I don’t want tell people how to live, I don’t want other people telling me how to live,” Korman, a self-described “Reform Jew who congregates with an Orthodox synagogue” and who is also a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition lobbying group, said.
“But I think that they are very, very concerned with some new dogma that has shifted through the Democratic Party in the last 10 years,” he added, referring to Democratic House members like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who have openly expressed support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Support of BDS is anti-Semitic under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition.
Such Democratic lawmakers, as well as President Donald’s Trump’s actions where he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, acknowledged the city as the capital of Israel, and recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel, have become highlighted parts of the Republican Party platform, designed to appeal to, among other demographics, Jewish voters.
“Republicans [must] message to Jewish Americans in the state of Georgia and make sure that we do everything possible to turn out the vote; it is crucial to this Senate race,” Thompson said. “Senator Loeffler and Perdue are both very, very committed to our relationship with Israel.
“Warnock … is just very anti-Semitic in his rhetoric and I do not know that he would even support the nation of Israel as far as foreign aid is concerned and how he would view Israel as far as recognizing Israel as a nation, let alone recognizing Jerusalem as the capital,” Thompson continued.
Karpuj disputes the claim that Warnock is anti-Semitic.
“I personally know Reverend Warnock; we have worked together for over a decade on different interfaith initiatives. I have seen him get involved with the Jewish community; I don’t think there is an issue there,” the rabbi said.
Thompson said that for Republicans to win more Jewish votes, the party needs to target issues important to them, including those who voted for Biden in November.
“One thing that is important for Republicans to understand is that sometimes you have to separate these individual political campaign races from other campaign races. … Don’t discount the vote of someone if they voted for Joe Biden in the presidential election, for that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to want to vote for the Democrat in another election if that particular Democrat is not aligning with the viewpoint of the voter,” she said.
“I think microtargeting is extremely important when it comes to campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts, that is not doing a one size fits all message but making sure the message is targeted to the particular voter and what issues are important to [him or her],” Thompson added. “I believe that is how you reach out to Jewish Americans as Republicans.”
Thompson is hoping for more voters like Yitzchok Tendler, the executive director of Congregation Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, and a senior fellow for Israel & Jewish Affairs at the American Conservative Union.
“I will be voting for both Republican candidates. In addition to my own preference for conservative policies on domestic issues, I also have Israel’s safety and security very high on my list of priorities,” Tendler told The Media Line.
“If God forbid the Biden Administration re-enters the Iran [nuclear] deal and an Israeli prime minister feels the need to address a joint session of Congress to warn about the grave danger that poses, like [Binyamin] Netanyahu did during the Obama Administration, I would want my Georgia senators to have the decency to hear out the leader of the world’s only Jewish state on this issue,” he said.
“I have everything reason to think that both Democratic candidates would make the wrong decision in such a theoretical scenario, and the Republican ones would make the right decision,” Tendler added.
Democrats concede that targeting the Israel issue has been somewhat successful for Republicans in gaining Jewish voters.
“I think it’s been partially effective, and I think what the Democrats need to do is localize this race,” Whitman said.
He argues, however, that the Republican characterization of the Democratic Party’s stance on Israel is not accurate.
“We have a robust debate about the best approach to support Israel. I think blind support for Israel and the corrupt Netanyahu propping up the settlements, from my perspective as a Jewish American voter is not the right strategy,” Whitman said. “But the demonization of the Democratic Party as somehow entirely pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel … is just not true.”
“John Ossoff is the only Jewish candidate in the race and Reverend Warnock has been quite clear that he is opposed to the BDS movement, and while he has concerns, as many Jewish Americans do, as I do, about the treatment of Palestinians and how the peace process has not progressed under Netanyahu, I think his statements in support of Israel have been very categoric and strong,” Whitman added.
“I don’t see that Loeffler and Perdue are better for Israel. In many ways, I think they are worse for Israel, because both of them are playing the Republican game of using Israel as a political wedge issue,” he said. “When they do that, they are actually hurting Israel, in my view, because to me and I think to a lot of others, the strength of the US-Israel relationship more than anything depends on it being bipartisan … which it was until fairly recently.
“When [the GOP employs this strategy], what they are really trying to do is peel off just enough Jewish votes to make a difference in elections that are going to be very close. I think that Georgia’s Senate races are a good example of that,” Rosenzweig added.
However, Korman, who has appeared in television campaign ads along with wife for both Republican Senate candidates, is very much concerned about Israel being politicized.
“There’s no reason for Israel to be a partisan issue. … I don’t want to see Israel having the support of one party and incurring the ire of another party,” he said.
Despite all the efforts, it remains unclear just how many Jewish voters will be receptive to microtargeting tactics.
“I think we need to understand that Jewish voters, yes, vote with Israel in mind, but I actually think as important if not more important is what are the policies here at home,” Whitman said.
According to the Jewish Electorate Institute, nearly 90% of Jews self-report being “pro-Israel,” but most do not agree with at least some elements of Israeli policy. In addition, most Jewish voters rank US domestic policy issues as more important to them than Israel.
“If you look at the range of issues that are of concern to most Jewish American voters, and I certainly would include myself in this, Loeffler and Perdue are really out of step,” Rosenzweig, who affiliates with Conservative Judaism, said. “You look at issues like health care and gun violence, immigration and women’s reproductive rights, and you can go right down the list, they are, from my point of view, are on the wrong side of every issue and Warnock and Ossoff are on the right side of every issue.”
Orthodox Jews tend to have different political preferences than the more liberal Conservative and Reform Jews, according to Tendler.
“The closer you are to Israel, the higher it ranks on your list of priorities. The more observant the segment of the community, the greater likelihood they are to have children and other family living in Israel, or have studied in Israel,” he said. “The safety of Israel is probably the No. 1 issue for us.”
Korman believes the future of Jewish participation in American politics looks bright for the Republican Party, due to demographic changes within the community.
“The Orthodox are a very conservative population,” and their numbers are growing because they have large families, he said.
“So I see the Jewish vote shifting,” Korman said.