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Partisan Politics Start to Heat Up

February 4, 2010 By:
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Whether visiting the Western Wall or hitting the stump, Democratic candidates Dan Onorato (left) and Joe Sestak are courting Jewish support to win their primaries in May and beat back the Republican tide in November. Sestak, however, has taken some flak for a letter about Israel.

For Pennsylvania's Republicans, the steady stream of good news -- from the GOP's stunning Senate victory in Massachusetts to the president's sliding job-approval rating -- has bolstered their confidence about political rehabilitation in 2010.

For their Democratic opponents, losing the filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate -- and the prospect of further defeats come November -- has them scrambling for strategies to retain their advantage.

As the race for several seats intensifies in the Keystone State, both parties are looking to Jewish funders and voters, especially in the Philadelphia region, to bolster their chances.

The seat of the state's longest-serving senator, the Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, is up for grabs. At the same time, the governor's mansion is set to get a new occupant as Ed Rendell leaves office. And the GOP is trying to win back two Philadelphia-area House seats it lost four years ago.

The Republican Party also boosted its chance to retain another key seat when U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) abandoned his bid for governor and announced that he's seeking re-election. Gerlach has developed a knack for beating back Democratic challengers in tight races, though this time he must raise funds from scratch.

Michael Adler, a Lower Merion Republican Party committee member active in local and state politics, said that he did everything but perform a cartwheel when he watched the recent Massachusetts returns.

"I think our 'recession-weary' nation, with an unemployment rate at 10 percent, is growing angry and nervous, and perhaps some voters believe Obama or the policies of his administration may be leading America in the wrong direction," said Adler, a 36-year-old member of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood.

Communications strategist Jeff Jubelirer, also a Republican, suggested that the tide had turned for Republican hopefuls, particularly in Northeastern states where just a short while ago, their chances seemed all but hopeless.

If a conservative can win in the bluest of blue states -- Massachusetts -- why couldn't Pat Toomey, the former Republican House member win here, asked Jubelirer. Toomey will face either Specter or U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7), depending on the winner of the Democratic primary in May.

According to the latest Franklin & Marshall Poll, Toomey leads Specter by 14 percentage points among likely voters and Sestak by 12.

Toomey outpaced Specter in fundraising in the final quarter of 2009.

But Specter, with $8.7 million in the bank to Toomey's $1.8 million, still has a heavier war chest, according to Federal Election Commission records that were just released.

For their part, Democrats aren't exactly running for cover, according to Mark Aronchick, one of the region's most well-known Democratic fundraisers.

He's a major backer of Specter, and of Dan Onorato, the leading Democratic candidate for governor.

"I'm getting nervous, determined and energized," he said. "We fought too hard for too long to stop now. This is not a harbinger of the bottom falling out. It's more of a wake-up call."

Across the board, efforts to reach out to Jewish donors and voters are already under way, although for now, the waters are moving mostly at private fundraisers and get-to-know-the-candidate salons. Overt politicking in the Jewish community can be expected after the May 18 primary, according to both Republican and Democratic insiders.

"You don't segment your base until after the primary," said Adler. For the time being, he noted, candidates are seeking to raise as much money as possible and to get reliable party voters to the polls on primary day.

At the same time, a flurry of meetings are taking place behind the scenes, as candidates for state and federal office seek a better sense of the Jewish community's agenda. Groups meeting with candidates include the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

So far, two Democratic candidates have visited Israel -- a move that political observers say can only help a candidate, particularly one without big-name recognition, connect with a Jewish audience.

One is Douglas Pike, the former member of the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who is going after Gerlach's congressional seat.

The other is Onorato, Allegheny County's chief executive, who is leading the fundraising drive against his three Democratic rivals for governor. Onorato has raised $6.2 million; the next highest total is $676,000 by Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner.

Onorato also appears to be leading the charge with Jewish outreach. He traveled to Israel in November for the first time on a trip organized by Jewish supporters in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, including Aronchick and Robert Fox.

Onorato said that he hopes, as governor, he can coax more Israeli high-tech firms to invest in Pennsylvania, and he framed his visit largely in terms of job growth.

"It was a life-changing trip for me," Onorato said, adding that it gave him a new appreciation for Israel's security concerns and also made a strong impression upon him as a Catholic.

Nevertheless, the question is: Will it help him click with Jewish audiences?

Fox, who recently hosted the candidate at his home for a primarily Jewish group, said of such a trip: "There's no doubt it's a plus."

On the Republican side, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, also from the Pittsburgh area, is widely expected to defeat State. Rep. Sam Rohrer (D-District 128) in the primary. He has generated headlines by leading the legal investigations into the legislative scandal in Harrisburg dubbed "Bonusgate."

Appearing Rather Confident 
Republicans appear confident that they've got a strong statewide candidate. And they've got the so-called eight-year cycle on their side as Rendell completes his term. Going back to 1954, no party has held the state governor's mansion for more than eight consecutive years.

Corbett hasn't been to Israel -- his spokesman said that he hopes to visit as governor -- but he's also been checking the communal temperature. For example, Corbett has met with Hank Butler, director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, to discuss the Jewish legislative agenda in Harrisburg.

He has also spoken before the RJC chapter in Pittsburgh, and plans to do so locally as well.

Brian Nutt, Corbett's spokesman, said that the candidate is reaching out to all kinds of different groups, but for the moment, he is pressing forward with a similar message.

"Obviously," said Nutt, "there are issues that are on all Pennsylvanians' minds -- no matter what their nationality or religion."

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