By Erin P. Billings
House Democrats are pushing back against GOP efforts to woo Jewish voters, putting in place a broad campaign to remind members of the faith that they are best represented by the Democratic Party.
As part of the outreach plan, Democrats are putting together a small group of Members to chart a course for the party to get back on track with one of their key voting blocks.
Democrats say both privately and publicly they have little concern that Republicans will be able to draw large numbers of Jewish voters or donors, but they remain worried the GOP will make enough gains to hurt them. By cutting into their support even slightly, Democrats acknowledge, the GOP can further cement its hold on the House majority.
Republicans have in recent months gone to great lengths to show strong support for Israel and made their presence felt at events for and on issues of importance to Jewish Americans.
"We know the Jewish constituency will always remain Democratic-leaning," said one Democratic leadership aide. "What Republicans are trying to do is shave off percentages. That's all they need to do to keep the majority."
Another senior Democratic aide said it's not that the party hasn't been representing Jews, just that it has poorly communicated what it has done.
"I think the thing Democrats are worried about is that they are taking all the positions this group cares about, but they don't seem to know it," the aide said.
House Democrats are putting together a group of about 15 Members - both Jews and non-Jews - to steer the message and vet issues. Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), a non-Jew who is spearheading the creation of the group and also heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will serve as its co-chairman along with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the most senior Jewish House Member.
The group, which hoped to begin meeting as early as this week, will focus on helping Members reach out to Jewish constituents, develop policy statements and legislation, and coordinate rapid responses to news or events.
Matsui, also chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said it was premature to talk details about the organization, saying only: "We have been working among Members and talking about the issue."
One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested money is the main reason for Democrats to step up now. Democrats already lag far behind the GOP when it comes to fundraising, and they can't afford to lose any ground with a critical donor base: "It's about [Republicans] siphoning off [financial] support. It's not about the vote."
While the new working group gets its legs, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is also leading a Democratic Congressional delegation to Israel in August with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It's the first time in several years that a non-Jewish Democratic leader is guiding such a trip.
Democrats have traditionally enjoyed strong backing from Jews and represent Jewish constituents in far larger numbers than do Republicans. In the House, the GOP has just one Jewish Member, while Democrats have 24 in their Caucus.
Hoyer said it is critical that Democrats reach out to Jews and remind them which party represents them - on both Israel and domestic issues. Republicans, he said, may be supportive on the former, but certainly have not been consistent on the latter.
"With any constituency, you need to constantly remind them of where you've been and that you've been fighting for the values that they share," Hoyer said.
He later acknowledged that Democrats are concerned about losing ground: "When you are a party in the minority, you are worried about losing half a point from any group, not just the Jewish community."
One senior Democratic staffer said the party, while strong on educating Members on issues, has dropped the ball on the public relations front. The aide said Republicans have taken advantage of that and capitalized on Democratic missteps.
Democrats have certainly taken some heat since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and mounting Middle East turmoil. For instance, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) was heavily criticized for alleging Jews exerted undo influence over the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq.
Other Democrats have at times appeared openly hostile to Israel, including former Reps. Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) and Earl Hilliard (Ala.). Their replacements, Reps. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) and Artur Davis
(D-Ala.), put together well-financed bids steered by national Jewish organizations unhappy with the two incumbents' stances on Israel.
"Republicans are terrific at marketing," said the aide. "By contrast, Democrats are great on their genuinely held positions, but lousy at marketing them."
As part of the overall effort, House Democratic leaders are trying to give non-Jewish Members a larger role on issues important to the Jewish community. They argue it is critical to show that what is important to Jews is also important to Democrats, regardless of their religion.
"Those of us who are not Jewish share an equally strong advocacy of those issues," Hoyer said. "It's important for non-Jewish Members to articulate those convictions as well so not just Jewish Members are asked to go out front."