JEWS AND THE MIDTERMS: Four Chicago Jews — two Democrats, two Republicans — on what’s at stake in election 2018

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The Nov. 6 midterm elections already were promising to be the most white-hot in memory due to the for-and-against sentiment generated by President Trump’s actions and words.

But after the mass murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, hard on the heels of a deranged would-be bomber sending explosive devices to top Democratic figures, Jewish engagement in the election figures to go off the charts.

To take the measure of the massacre’s effect and other hot-button issues on Jews in the nationwide vote, Chicago Jewish News contacted four local political activists – two Republican and two Democrat.

Republicans interviewed were Richard Baehr and Josh Kantrow. Baehr is a management consultant for the health-care industry. Kantrow is an attorney specializing in cyber-security.

Democrats interviewed were Steve Sheffey, formerly the president of CityPAC, a single-issue pro-Israel political action committee based in Chicago; and Dana Gordon, formerly with the political action committee JacPac.

No matter which side of the party line, the interviewees believe the massacre will have some effect on the election, at least in terms of voter turnout numbers. All agree Democrat J.B. Pritzker should easily defeat Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner to become only the second elected Jewish governor after Henry Horner (1932 and 1936) in Illinois history.  And all predict probable gains by the Democrats in their effort to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republican view

Baehr and Kantrow both agree anti-Semitism is on the rise, culminating in the Pittsburgh murders.

Richard Baehr with the late Sen. John McCain.

“America is a country of 320 million people, and that total includes a sizable number of fanatics, and deranged people who are capable of causing great harm to others,” Baehr said. “Anti-Semitism is a problem with a long history in this country and abroad, though in general it has been less virulent and violent here. In the last few years, anti-Semitic incidents have increased in frequency.

“The horrific attack in Pittsburgh will have major implications for security at Jewish institutions. Instead of (just) High Holiday security, we will begin to resemble Europe in the terms of the size and consistency of security details. We can only hope that among the armed and vicious Jew haters still out there, that we do not have any copycat murderers planning attacks. Those attacks do not necessarily fit any specific political profile. Anti-Semitism is a problem on both ends of the political continuum.

“The Florida mail bomber is a somewhat different story. Increasing divisiveness in the country over political choices and identity, the political rhetoric coming from many leading figures in both parties, and the 24-hour cable news frenzy, which highlights the divide and feeds it, all have a role in increasing the chances of violence.”

Added Kantrow: “I am sickened by the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue and grieve for the victims and their families. I am thankful for President Trump’s strong condemnation, stating ‘the evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us,’ and that anti-Semitism must be ‘confronted and condemned everywhere it rears its very ugly head.’

“The president added ‘through the centuries, the Jews have endured terrible persecution’ and ‘when you have crimes like this… we have to bring back the death penalty.’ I am really disappointed (but not surprised) that so many of my friends on the Left showed such callous disregard for the victims, and instead were intent on trying to score political points within minutes of the tragedy. It turns out the terrorist hated Trump, too.”

Baehr believes the attack will “help the Democrats a bit, since both of these attacks came from the right, and so feed into the anti-Trump narrative.

“Jewish voters were likely to support Democrats in large numbers anyway, and these events will probably not move the (Jewish balloting) needle much,” he said. “Anytime gun control becomes an issue, partisans on both sides of that issue are more likely to want to vote for their side. There is still time before the election for shifts in the political landscape to play out. But, so far, there is little evidence that the general framework for the midterms has changed.”

Kantrow agreed the massacre will not perceptibly increase the already heavily-pro Democratic Jewish vote.

“Maybe the events will result in a slightly greater turnout, although Jews already vote in high percentages,” he said. “Among non-Jewish voters, I believe these back-to-back events will motivate more on the Left to vote, both early and on Election Day.  I do not believe the events will impact statewide races — governor, Senate, etc.  However, they could affect close congressional and state legislative elections, resulting in a net pickup of a few such seats for Democrats than they otherwise would have attained.”

Despite the overwhelmingly Jewish Democratic vote, Baehr said local Jews should weigh the perceived negatives of Illinois continuing as a “one-party state” with the expected ascendancy of billionaire Pritzker to the governor’s mansion. Baehr expects Pritzker to win by at least “10 points.” Kantrow said Rauner, married to a Jewish woman and raising his children Jewish, will be fortunate to get 40 percent of the vote.

“In a few off years the GOP sneaks in,” Baehr said of state control. “The state legislature is controlled by one party and one particular individual (Speaker Michael Madigan). What (new policies) do Democrats have to offer? Pritzker would have been better off investing his $165 million (in personal campaign spending) in the pension shortfall. Now you put the governor in synch with (Madigan). Slowest growth rate in jobs. The deficit accelerating the last 20 years.

“Republican governors (Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar) were way too easy in negotiations with teachers unions. They’re not innocent here. Overall, the state benefits from having a competitive two-party system.”

Democrats have made health care and preserving protections for pre-existing conditions their signature campaign issue. Realizing the public’s overwhelming support for Obamacare or some related government-protected health mandate, many Republican congressional candidates have jumped on the pre-existing conditions bandwagon.

Josh Kantrow with former Gov. Mitt Romney.

Baehr and Kantrow are not anti-government health assistance ideologues. With his own specialty in the health-care industry, Baehr advocated for separating the most ill recipients of Obamacare into their own pool for subsidies. That way, healthy individuals could enroll in a separate pool in which costs would not be inflated by a one-size-fits-all program.

“Health care (improvement) could happen if you have a Democratic House, and still a majority GOP in the Senate,” Kantrow said. “There’s a deal out there to fix Obamacare. They weren’t able to do it previously because the Republicans hated Obama, and wanted to get rid of his legacy. Obamacare is here to stay. The Republicans would be smart to work with Democrats to come up with plan to fix it. There hasn’t been a true bi-partisan working group to fix it. Most rational people are in favor of protecting pre-existing conditions.”

More bi-partisanship and less vitriol are needed no matter what the issue, especially in the wake of real and planned violence.

“Increasingly, we have a large number of people who do not believe elected officials are their elected officials,” said Baehr. “They are from the wrong party, so they should be resisted and treated as the enemy, not simply as people with different views who won elections. Major media figures subscribe to these rejectionist views.

“It is well past time for leading political figures from both parties to dial it down. There are too many people losing a grip across the political spectrum who have the means to destroy lives and cause great harm.”

Democratic view

Steve Sheffey and Dana Gordon mourn for the lost Jews of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre while acting even more determined to attack the supercharged atmosphere that apparently encouraged the shooter.

“Nearly 75 percent of Jewish voters are already planning to vote Democratic in the mid-terms,” said Sheffey, “and I’m not sure if anything can change the minds of the 25 percent of Jewish voters who don’t see, or refuse to see, how out of sync Trump is with the Jewish values most Jews cherish.

Steve Sheffey with former Vice President Joe Biden.

“The pipe bombs and the synagogue massacre confirm what we already knew: Trump is not some loveable presidential version of Archie Bunker. He is engaging in hateful, anti-Semitic bigotry, and his irresponsible, un-presidential rhetoric is leading to murder. Trump didn’t pull the trigger, but he is responsible, and everyone who continues to support him is ignoring these facts.

“We need responsible rhetoric and responsible gun safety legislation. We won’t get either as long as Republicans control Congress and the White House. This is not politicizing a tragedy. This is recognizing reality and realizing that elections matter. The results of the November elections will say a lot about who we are as Americans.”

Joining Sheffey in canvassing for Democratic congressional candidate Sean Casten in Chicago’s western suburbs, fellow activist Gordon feels even more Jews will be galvanized with a fear of targets on their backs.

“I think it got Jews off the sidelines,” she said.  “Before some thought their vote doesn’t matter. But now people realize gun violence affects us and anti-Semitism affects us. They realize tax breaks aren’t worth it.  These nut jobs have access to assault weapons.”

Closer to home, Sheffey is angered that avowed white supremacist, neo-Nazi Republican Congressional candidate Arthur Jones has not been repudiated by his adopted party. Jones will lose big to entrenched Democrat Dan Lipinski in the southwest suburban district, home to scant numbers of Jews.

“Not one Republican in Illinois has endorsed Lipinski over Jones, a Nazi,” said Sheffey. “Not one Republican in Illinois has been able to bring himself to endorse a Democrat over a Nazi. It’s a real problem. What are they afraid of, their base?”

Dana Gordon with former president Bill Clinton.

The fallout from the Pittsburgh massacre and the bubbling up of alt-right groups could more than counteract some Republican claims that some projected newly-elected Democratic congressmen are extreme leftist, anti-Israel or even borderline anti-Semitic in philosophy.

“There has been no diminution in Democratic support for Israel in Congress, which is why legislation supporting Israel continues to pass with overwhelming bipartisan majorities,” said Sheffey. “Roughly 470 Democrats will be on the November ballot for the U.S. House and Senate. Our Republican friends would prefer that we ignore 466 of those candidates and focus on the three or four who are potentially problematic on Israel.

“Some Democrats do disagree with certain policies of the current Israeli government, but they continue to support pro-Israel legislation. If we can oppose Trump’s or Obama’s policies and still be pro-America, we can oppose some of Bibi’s policies and still be pro-Israel. We should not confuse the government of Israel with the State of Israel, and we should not let others obscure the difference for partisan gain.”

However, Jewish voters remain somewhat more skeptical, according to a Mellman Poll that Sheffey cited.

Trump’s much-touted pro-Israel actions such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem only got a plurality of Jewish support, according to the Mellman poll. Fifty-one percent of Jews supported overall U.S. policy on Israel while 49 percent opposed. Ninety-two percent of Jews counted themselves as “generally pro-Israel,” but only 32 percent were supportive of Israeli government policies.

The poll suggested a Jewish anti-Trump wave exists. Seventy-six percent of Jews have an unfavorable view of the president compared to 23 percent in favor. Seventy-four percent of Jews will vote for Democrats for Congress compared to 26 percent for Republicans – same percentage as a projected vote for Trump’s re-election in 2020.

Sixty-eight percent of Jews said they were Democrats, compared to 25 percent Republicans. Sixty-four percent classified themselves as liberals compared to 29 percent as conservatives.

Resounding even more with Jews were 80 percent or more backing for the picking of impartial Supreme Court justices, better health care, the economy and jobs, and fairer taxes.

Sheffey doubted the sincerity of Republicans advocating for protection of pre-existing conditions, given their previous opposition to Obamacare and inability to craft a credible replacement program.

Expecting Pritzker to win handily, Sheffey and Gordon refuted the charges of Republicans and conservative Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass that the new governor will simply be a well-heeled appendage of string-puller Madigan.

“I don’t have concerns,” Sheffey said.  “JB does not owe Madigan anything. He finances his own campaign, and he’s not out of the party apparatus. JB is his own person. He has a longtime (activist) record. He will not owe his election to Madigan.”

Said Gordon:  “It’s the same thing they’re accusing Casten of.  Madigan is a state official. They have nothing to do with each other. I think JB will have enough knowledge and authority (without taking orders from Madigan). You don’t have to guess where JB stands on issues like immigration and the environment.”

In the final days before the election, Sheffey and Gordon feel they do not need any more motivation in their political work. Four Republican-held House seats are in play in Illinois.

“The Democrats are energized,” said Sheffey. “If the House flips, it will be a check on Trump. The Republicans have not moderated the president.”

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