Iraq, the broader war on terror, immigration and now a scandal involving a disgraced former Republican congressman; these issues have dominated the headlines during this tempestuous election season, in which control of both branches of Congress, especially the House, remains at stake.
But is it possible that when the majority of Jews go to the polls come November, the so-called "culture-war issues" — abortion, gay rights, the separation of church and state — will be foremost in their minds?
This could prove an especially salient question in the Pennsylvania Senate race, considering that U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum has become linked in voters minds with his conservative stance on those issues, perhaps most strongly because of the views expressed in his 2005 book It Takes a Family, and for his leadership in getting Congress to intervene in the Terri Schiavo family standoff.
According to pundits and activists, it's too soon to tell what will be the top priority for the bulk of Jewish voters on Election Day. But with Nov. 7 now just a month away, it seems likely that the Republican Party will have to wait for another day to pick up a substantially larger piece of the Jewish electorate.
But in tight races, every bit counts.
"My experience has been that the Jewish community reacts to the cultural wars in a manner negative to the Republicans. The mainstream Jewish community sees in the cultural war intimations of a Christian America," said Marshall Breger, professor at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.
From 1982 to 1984, Breger served as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the administration's liaison to the Jewish community.
Breger — also a one-time fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank — lauds what he deems as the Republican Party's considerable outreach to Jews, as well as its support for Israel during troubled times.
The problem he sees facing Republicans vis-à-vis Jewish voters is that if their focus turns away from social issues toward the war in Iraq, it probably won't make it any easier for Republican incumbents like Santorum, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6), U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-District 7) and U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-District 8) to hold on to their seats.
"I still think that Iraq is going to be the elephant in the room — the polls show that the Jewish community is less supportive than the rest of the country — and that is another problem for the Republicans," added Breger.
And the Surveys Say …
In the American Jewish Committee's last Annual Survey of American Jewish opinion, some 70 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the war in Iraq. On the domestic side of the coin, when asked whether government should provide taxpayer funds for programs run by religious institutions, 66 percent of those surveyed said it shouldn't. (A new survey is due out prior to Election Day.)
While there is currently scant poling data regarding Jewish attitudes regarding the senate race, Michael G. Hagen, director of Temple University's Institute for Public Affairs, said that overall, negative attitudes toward the incumbent ran incredibly high.
When asked to rate Santorum on a scale of 0 to 10, 24 percent of respondents gave the incumbent an actual 0.
"I was a little surprised by how long Santorum continued to emphasize his conservative credentials," said Hagen. "I imagined he would be trying to emphasize his more moderate positions earlier in the campaign."
Scott Feigelstein, director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that Democratic challengers are unfairly painting their Republican opponents with a broad brush, and creating a false fear that GOP victories in November will spell a curtailing of abortion rights and reintroduction of school prayer.
"I don't think the abortion issue is at play," declared Feigelstein, who added that the RJC does not have a formal position on abortion, and welcomes both pro-choice and pro-life members.
He argued that voters would be wise to give far more credence to national-security issues — he includes immigration in that category — than domestic ones.
"There is very little daylight on abortion between Bob Casey and Rick Santorum," said Feigelstein, referring to the fact that unlike many Democrats, Casey is opposed to abortion. Backers of the Pennsylvania State Treasurer argue that he's less adamant in his opposition to abortion and more supportive of family-planning measures.
Along those lines, Marc Stern, general council for the American Jewish Congress, noted that "all the poll data shows over a very long period of time — that with the exception of Orthodox Jews and neoconservatives — Jews as a group tend to think that government ought to stay ought of morality, sexuality and the rights of women over reproductive choices. Jews are more liberal than the entire population on that."
'We've Got Real Issues'
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, argued that rhetoric aside, real policy could be at stake in the election results.
While a Democratic victory in the House or Senate is not likely to bring about a national law legalizing gay marriages or civil unions — at least not any time soon — Saperstein argued that a change in leadership in the House could mean that a bill making it to federal crime for an employee to discriminate against an employee based on sexual orientation could come to fruition.
"If Democrats take the house, they have enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass the legislation," said Saperstein.
Since this is not a presidential election year, there hasn't been a great deal of focus on the Supreme Court, particularly since two new justices were nominated and confirmed in 2005. But Saperstein cautioned that at least two justices may be nearing their retirement, and that every Senate vote counts when it comes to the judicial confirmation process.
Nevertheless, he does not expect culture-war issues — and voting based on religious values — to be nearly as important to electoral politics as many pundits proclaimed following the 2004 vote.
"I think gay marriage and abortion are going to be dwarfed by issues such as health care, poverty and security," he said.
That's exactly what Alan Wolfe — director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College and author of One Nation After All and Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It — argues in the body of his writings.
"The big question is: Has the religious right or culture war issues peaked?" posed Wolfe. "They really rose to prominence in the 1990s, when there weren't any other issues. Now we've got real issues like the Middle East and Islamic terrorism. Moral issues came up in a vacuum."
If that is the case, then the Republican Party does indeed have a chance to make inroads among Jewish voters, according to Noam Nuesner, who during President George W. Bush's first term served as a domestic-policy speechwriter, as well as liaison to the Jewish community.
"The question this year is: Do Jewish voters say what they mean?" when they say that supporting Israel and fighting anti-Semitism are their top priorities, posed Nuesner.
"If Israel is the most important issue to them, then they will vote with the candidate who has been there — the choice is clear," said Nuesner, referring to Santorum.
But Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington Operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, cautioned that candidates make the assumption that Jews are single-issue voters at their own peril.
"On top of everything else, we are women living in the United States, and there are issues that impact our lives as women, and we take those into account along with every other issue," she said.
"And I think as Jews, we understand that we are a minority religious community who very much depends on a system of civil rights and civil-liberties laws — and the enforcement of those laws — to continue to allow us to thrive."