WASHINGTON — When the votes are counted in the 34 Senate races nationwide next month, the fate of six Jewish candidates will play a pivotal role in deciding whether Republicans remain in the majority.
Democrats need to gain an additional three seats to erase the current 53-47 Republican advantage, assuming that President Clinton wins his re-election bid and Vice President Gore counts as the Senate tiebreaker.
Many political observers say the race could boil down to this: The outcome of the five races involving six Jewish candidates could determine either party's margin of victory in the battle to control the next Senate.
In one race, two Jews are running against each other.
The six candidates' Jewishness is not all that draws Jewish supporters and campaign contributions. Their positions on local and national issues have energized Jewish and non-Jewish voters in the states where they are running: Minnesota, New Jersey, Kansas, Rhode Island and Michigan.
Although Senate races tend to remain independent of the presidential campaign, many candidates are focusing on similar issues. Balancing the budget, tax relief, education and the future of Social Security and Medicare remain high priorities in many congressional contests this year.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is not up for re-election this year, has been the only Jewish member on the Republican side of the aisle since Paul Wellstone defeated his Republican opponent Rudy Boschwitz in the 1990 Senate race in Minnesota.
There were nine Jewish Democrats in the last Senate. Of those, the only two up for re-election are Wellstone and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
This year's Boschwitz-Wellstone grudge match is one of the bellwether races that political activists are watching closely. Boschwitz passed up a chance to run in 1994 so he could face off against his 1990 rival this time around.
Wellstone drew high marks from many in the Jewish community when he was the only senator up for re-election to vote against the controversial welfare reform bill earlier this year. Boschwitz, who served three terms before being edged out in a stunning upset victory by Wellstone, has been hammering his opponent as an unabashed big-spending liberal.
Back in 1990 Boschwitz had been leading his long-shot rival, who was then a university professor. But in the campaign's final days, a letter he wrote to Jewish supporters reminding them of his being an observant Jew and describing Wellstone as someone married to a non-Jew who raised his children as non-Jews was made public. It caused a backlash among the largely non-Jewish electorate.
So far, it's unclear if Boschwitz's liberal charge has weakened Wellstone's support. One recent poll available showed Wellstone leading by nine points: Another said Wellstone's lead over Boschwitz shrank from 47-39 in July to 43-42 in September.
The rare faceoff between two Jewish candidates, one a senator and the other a former senator, has sparked political and financial support well beyond Minnesota.
Boschwitz has received about $20,000 in direct contributions from pro-Israel political action committees, mostly during the contested primary battle. Wellstone, who only began taking PAC contributions recently, has gathered nearly $4,000, according to Federal Election Commission records, and is expected to receive thousands more before Election Day.
Like many Minnesota Jews, pro-Israel contributors across the country are divided in their preference and often give to both candidates.
Some PAC officials would like to see Boschwitz, known for an active pro-Israel agenda, return to the Senate. Others with broader interests support Wellstone, who opposed the Gulf War, for his domestic agenda.
While Wellstone leads in the polls in Minnesota, his Democratic colleague in the East, Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), has no such luck.
One of the closest races in the country pits Rep. Dick Zimmer, a New Jersey Republican, against Torricelli. Currently running neck and neck, the two lawmakers are vying for the seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.).
With a statewide voting Jewish population estimated at more than 5 percent, the candidates have actively courted Jewish voters.
Many Republican leaders fielded potential primary challenges to Zimmer's candidacy, hoping that Zimmer, one of 24 Jews in the last House, could win Jewish support, and by extension boost the GOP presidential ticket.
For his part, Torricelli has recently faced a torrent of criticism from the Zimmer camp for speaking at a 1993 meeting sponsored by a group with ties to Muslim extremists. Torricelli has said he was unaware of the group's ties to Islamic extremism.
Under fire, Torricelli's Jewish backers lined up to defend the seven-term lawmaker's record of strong support for Israel and Jewish issues.
But that was not good enough for some local Jews, who booed and hissed recently as New Jersey's other senator, Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat and Jew, escorted Torricelli into a federation-sponsored candidates' forum.
Although the closeness of the New Jersey race is no surprise, the contest for Bob Dole's old Senate seat has caught many off-guard.
In what could be one of the biggest setbacks for Dole, a Kansas Democrat now holds a narrow lead in the race for the seat he left to run for president. Jill Docking, who is Jewish, is facing off against Sam Brownback, a staunch conservative.
Brownback defeated Dole's hand-picked successor, Sheila Frahm, in the state's Republican primary. Docking is banking on the strategy that Brownback is too conservative for the state's moderate Republicans, who she hopes will cross over and support her.
Brownback has run on his opposition to abortion and support of instituting a moment of silence in the state's public schools.
For her part, Docking proudly says in stump speeches that she sounds more like a moderate Republican as she voices support for a capital-gains tax cut, term limits and a balanced budget.
Another Jewish woman, Nancy Mayer, the Rhode Island state treasurer, is hoping to score an upset victory against Jack Reed, one of the state's Democratic members of Congress.
Republican activists acknowledge that Mayer's chances are a long shot in her quest to capture the seat of retiring Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat.
Reed, a three-term House member, frequently supported Jewish efforts to oppose school prayer initiatives and promote anti-terrorism measures.
The safest seat for a Jewish candidate this year belongs to Levin of Michigan. Levin, who won his race six years ago with 57 percent of the vote, is facing Ronna Romney, a Detroit radio talk-show host and daughter of the former governor.
Of course, Jewish attention is not only focused on races with Jewish candidates. And sometimes Jewish themes arise when the candidates aren't even Jewish.
In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Robert Smith has accused his opponent, former Democratic Rep. Dick Swett, of waging a campaign to paint the one-term senator as opposed to Jewish interests.
Swett, the non-Jewish son-in-law of one of the most prominent Jewish House members, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), has highlighted in his campaign Smith's opposition to foreign aid.
In responding to the charge, Smith ignited his own controversy when he said, "My father died in the Second World War trying to get Dick Swett's father-in-law, Tom Lantos, out of those" concentration camps.
Swett, who is receiving considerable Jewish support from outside the state, fired back, saying that Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, escaped death without help from Smith's father.