U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter enjoyed deep support from the Philadelphia-area Jewish community, and it's no mystery why. As a Republican from Kansas who was moderate on social issues and staunch in his support of Israel, he seemed hand-crafted more than any GOPer to win Jewish votes, especially in the suburbs.
But now, he's out of the picture, his defection to the Democrats having failed to extend his political career. His loss in the Senate primary to U.S. Rep Joe Sestak last week sets up a fierce general election fight between Sestak and former Lehigh Valley Congressman Pat Toomey. Both are set to court Jewish votes — just as they will all others — and Toomey's campaign is hoping he can make more inroads than Republicans typically have here.
How that contest shakes out will highlight just what role Israel is playing in American Jewish politics. At the same time, if there's one thing on which both candidates and their supporters agree, it's that most voters won't be pulling the lever with just this in mind.
"You make a mistake if you think the only issue the Jewish community cares about is Israel," said Burt Siegel, former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a Sestak supporter from Elkins Park. "Once you're satisfied that the candidate isn't anti-Israel, you start to look at other issues."
Jewish voters have long been a more reliable constituency for the Democratic Party. While precise numbers are hard to come by, political insiders in both parties estimate that John McCain got less than a fifth of the Philadelphia-area's Jewish vote against Barack Obama in 2008. Sestak supporters say there's no reason to think that will change this year.
"You see that election after election, and I have no reason to believe it's going to be any different this time," said Mark Aronchick, a lawyer active in the community and in Democratic fundraising circles.
Toomey's campaign is hoping to paint Sestak as an unreliable ally of Israel.
Its criticisms are many, including Sestak's decision to speak at a 2007 event by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR, and a letter Sestak sent Obama calling for more humanitarian aid for Gazans in the wake of last January's incursion into the area by Israel.
"There's a clear contrast between Congressman Toomey's positions and Congressman Sestak's positions," said Mark Harris, Toomey's campaign manager. "Congressman Toomey's a big ally of Israel. Congressman Sestak has time and again placed himself outside the mainstream of American politics on this issue, as he has on a lot of issues."
Whether Toomey can convince Jewish voters of that — and whether it will even matter — remains to be seen.
The recent ratcheting up of tensions between Israel and the Obama administration has put many Democrats in tenuous political positions, torn between their alliance with Obama and their desire to show support for Israel. For example, Sestak signed on to a letter late last year calling for more "robust" security funding for Israel.
Even some Toomey supporters are skeptical that a largely left-of-center constituency can be swayed.
"I'm very, very pessimistic," said Robert Guzzardi, a conservative activist and Republican fundraiser from Ardmore. "The Jews will not vote for Toomey or any Republican, no matter what. They'll likely stay home."
He added: "Those Jews that call themselves pro-Israel or hawks on Israel need to come and support Pat Toomey. I don't think they will, but they should."
Some pundits say that while Sestak and Toomey differ in their rhetoric, the differences are less clear when it comes to the nuts and bolts of their policies toward Israel. Both have visited — Toomey during a 1999 trip sponsored by the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; and Sestak, numerous times during his 31-year career in the U.S. Navy. Both favor a two-state solution, and say that America can't dictate that solution. Both favor military and economic aid to Israel.
On Iran, they differ on the sanctions-engagement equation: Toomey has generally spoken more supportively for tough sanctions toward Iran, while Sestak has generally favored a foreign policy of engagement.
Sestak supporters said that Israel would be little more than a wedge issue to deflect attention from Sestak's positions on fiscal and social issues that would seem more in line with most Jewish voters.
"You'll find a chink in anyone's armor," said Siegel. "Nobody's going to have a voting record that everybody in the Jewish community likes, on both domestic issues and Israel issues."
In an interview following his victory, Sestak noted that Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell also attended the 2007 CAIR event, and said that his own call for increased access to humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip didn't change his support for Israel.
He added that military action against countries like Iran is always an option, but should be "on the back of the table, not the front of it.
"I believe Israel is our strongest ally and our vital ally in the Middle East and in the world," said Sestak. "The more secure Israel can feel about our support, the more secure we will be able to feel as we engage the world to work toward a two-state solution."
He said that the Obama administration was right to begin the process with a strategy of engagement, though "they stubbed their toe on the settlements issue."
"That kind of finger-pointing between two allies is not helpful at all," said Sestak, alluding to the tensions between Israel and Washington over setttlements and building in eastern Jerusalem. "We're best when we're in the room with the two parties, but I don't believe we should mandate a solution because then the parties don't have ownership of the solution."
Toomey was not available for an interview, but in the past, he has voiced support for "natural population growth" within Israeli settlements, writing in a position paper that "Israel has a right to accommodate and defend this natural growth."
Harris, Toomey's campaign manager, acknowledged that Israel is only one issue in the race. But, he added, "there are voters to whom the Israel issue is going to very important, and I think we have a clear advantage with them."