As the national focus intensifies on the Pennsylvania Senate race — a polarizing and bare-knuckle contest that many are calling a bellwether for the national mood — several groups are continuing to hammer U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic hopeful, over his record on Israel.
For his part, Sestak has ceaselessly pressed his case in local Jewish circles. More than 100 supporters have formed a group — loosely connected with the official campaign — called Jewish Citizens Stand with Sestak. They are raising funds and hoping to defend Sestak's positions on Israel in a series of print ads.
And after months of sharp focus on Sestak, some Democrats — and even Sestak himself — have begun raising questions about Republican opponent Pat Toomey's record, including a series of votes against foreign aid when he served in the House of Representatives. Toomey has said that his votes reflected his opposition to portions of the funding and had nothing to do with Israel.
The race may also provide a sense of whether or not Jewish voters intend to punish Democrats over President Barack Obama's Middle East policies.
As the political temperatures have risen, a controversial plan to build an Islamic community center and mosque a few blocks from the ground zero site in New York City briefly found its way into the race as well. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spoken out forcefully in favor of the project, came to Philadelphia to endorse Sestak.
When discussion of the project arose at the Aug. 17 press conference, Sestak spoke out in support of it. Toomey, however, later said that it is "provocative in the extreme to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero."
The same week, the Republican Jewish Coalition paid for a television spot that ran in the Philadelphia market, criticizing Sestak for signing a letter that urged the United States and Israel to allow more humanitarian goods into Gaza.
Sestak said at the time that such an action should only be taken if it didn't compromise Israel's security.
'Real Litmus Tests'
The commercial came one month after a new Washington, D.C.-based organization — the Emergency Committee for Israel — took a similar message to the Philadelphia airwaves, adding a national component to what had been a local debate about Sestak.
On Aug. 23, the RJC issued a press release criticizing Sestak for accepting the endorsement of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel — the group claims that Hagel also has a troubling Israel record.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the RJC, promised an expensive campaign to inform voters about Sestak.
"I think there are real litmus tests you face in Congress, and on many of the key tests, Joe Sestak has been a major disappointment," said Brooks.
During an Aug. 23 Center City nonpartisan gathering during which Sestak addressed about 50 Jewish political insiders, several supporters expressed concern that the negative attacks were doing damage and that the campaign hadn't done enough in response.
"The politics of fear is very potent, and using wedge issues is an old tactic," stated Elijah Dornstreich, a 35-year-old Sestak supporter who attended the invitation-only forum known as the Jewish Political Leadership Series.
He added that a response ad would be nice, but after months of facing questions, Sestak needs to give a lengthy speech on the subject of the State of Israel in the vein of then-presidential candidate Obama's March 2008 Philadelphia speech on race.