WASHINGTON — In dueling election recaps the day after the presidential election, J Street and the Republican Jewish Coalition claimed they beat the other when it came to supporting like-minded candidates.
The arena was Congress and the weapon of choice was Iran: RJC campaigned against candidates associated with the nuclear deal, J Street against those who opposed it.
J Street asserted that the results vindicated its support for candidates who backed the pact, noting that “not a single member of Congress who supported the Iran nuclear agreement was defeated by a detractor.”
“The political lesson out of this deal is that anti-diplomacy politics at the congressional level had no traction,” Jeremy Ben Ami, president of the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, said in a conference call.
The RJC, by contrast, boasted that the candidates supported by its PAC “defeated the J Street-supported candidate in 13 of 20 races we squared off in.”
“We made a decision to make the Iran deal a central part of our focus,” said Matt Brooks, RJC’s director, in a conference call. “We think it paid significant dividends.”
So who’s right?
It’s hard to say because so much of what’s at stake isn’t simply apples and oranges but several other varieties of fruit.
J Street’s affiliated political action committee spent $3.6 million, while the RJC’s PAC had spent $267,000 as of the most recent report, Oct. 19. The RJC will say that’s hardly the whole story because the group also advises its board members on where and how to give strategically. J Street counters that it, too, can claim credit for where its board members spend their considerable millions but chooses not to.
Nevertheless, in a release Thursday, the RJC was happy to credit its political action committee for the success of 13 RJC endorsees vs. seven for J Street. (This cycle, J Street only endorsed Democrats.)
J Street counters that all but three of its defeated candidates went up against incumbents — the other three were open races where the departing incumbent was a Republican. That’s a mitigating factor — but a defeat is a defeat.
More saliently, what role did the Iran deal play in any of the victories or defeats? And to what degree can J Street, a supporter of the agreement, or the RJC, a fierce opponent, claim victory?
J Street notes that not a single incumbent who backed the Iran deal fell in the race. That’s not insignificant: Centrist and right-wing pro-Israel lobbyists warned Congress members during last year’s battle over the deal that there would be repercussions for supporting it.
The RJC disagrees, expanding its definition of “incumbent” to include two Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives who voted for the deal and this year ran for the Senate and lost: Patrick Murphy in Florida and Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona.
That’s a stretch. The threat some pro-Israel donors delivered to incumbents a year or so ago, that they would lose what they already held, is a much more potent threat than saying they were at risk in running for higher office. The original threat simply did not hold.
So did the Iran deal, which exchanged sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback, play a role at all?
Certainly it was used heavily against candidates who embraced it and lost, including Russ Feingold seeking Ron Johnson’s Senate seat in Wisconsin; Ted Strickland hoping to unseat Rob Portman in Ohio; Kate McGinty against Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania; Murphy challenging Marco Rubio in Florida, and Kirkpatrick vs. John McCain in Arizona.
But the deal was also used strongly against winning candidates, including two who ousted incumbent Republicans in the Senate: Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, booting Kelly Ayotte, and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, who will replace Mark Kirk. (The two losses are especially significant for Iran deal opponents: Kirk was a longtime leader in demanding increased pressure on Iran, and Ayotte also was bullish in opposition.)
Backers of Joe Heck, the Republican seeking the Nevada Senate seat of Harry Reid, who is retiring, blasted Catherine Cortez Masto with ads highlighting her support of the Iran deal, and she won. The deal was used against Democrats in countless House races, but not an incumbent was harmed. It was used against all four of the House’s new Jewish Democrats; they won.
Moreover, the deal seemed to have barely registered as an issue this campaign. A J Street poll out last week showed that for Jewish voters, Iran was dead last among the priorities they were considering when they voted.
So that made the deal a wash as a campaign issue, right? Ben Ami, when I asked about this, did not quite disagree: J Street’s argument was not necessarily that supporting diplomatic engagement would win you votes, but more that it wouldn’t cost you.
Brooks, naturally, did not agree.
“Our polling shows that this issue cuts with people — it also cuts with people who are not Jewish, like evangelicals,” he said.
I’d like to see that polling considering what a bust Iran-related campaigning appeared to be, at least according to the metric of removing incumbents because they backed the deal: The most notable incumbents who lost Tuesday, Kirk and Ayotte, were Republicans who were outspoken in opposition to the deal. The House remains Republican, but Democrats scored a net gain of five to eight seats.
But don’t count out entirely the usefulness of Iran-related campaigning, for two reasons:
* In a close race, any tactic that throws your opponent off balance is a plus. If the campaign staff is spending time formulating responses to an Iran deal attack ad, even if it’s about keeping worried pro-Israel donors on board and not about garnering votes, that’s time spent away from other useful actions.
Notably, in the four House races in which non-incumbent Jewish Democrats won despite facing negative campaigning relating to the Iran deal, three (Josh Gottheimer in New Jersey, Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Brad Schneider in Illinois) went out of their way to make clear that they would have opposed the deal had they been in Congress. None was endorsed by J Street. (Jamie Raskin, who won a House seat in Maryland, stood by the deal and received a J Street endorsement.)
* In a very close race, no one single issue is a deciding factor, and that assigns greater significance to issues that may otherwise have been considered tangential.
So did those calculations figure in this race?
The RJC especially focused its Iran deal-related Senate campaigning in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, all victories for the group. J Street’s major focuses were in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where its candidates lost, and in New Hampshire, Nevada and Illinois, where its candidates won.
Let’s home in on the two closest races, in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
The RJC, late in the Pennsylvania race, ran an expensive Iran deal-related ad against McGinty. Toomey won by 100,000 votes, less than two percentage points. It wouldn’t be out of line for the RJC to tell its donors that its ad swung some of the late deciders and helped keep the Senate Republican. J Street, moreover, ran ads in Pennsylvania, also focused on the Iran deal.
J Street spent $122,000 on Hassan and distributed fliers in New Hampshire attacking Ayotte’s opposition to the Iran deal; Hassan also was subject to negative ads because of her expressed support for the deal. Ayotte also got more than $200,000 from NORPAC, a pro-Israel PAC that opposed the deal.
Hassan won by fewer than 1,000 votes. J Street earns the right, with that minuscule gap, to claim it made a difference.
But even if RJC and J Street essentially tied, Brooks noted in the call that the question was moot. Donald Trump, who says the deal was a bad one, is the next president, and both chambers are led by Republicans sworn to kill the deal.
“Hopefully we won’t have to run ads going forward,” Brooks said.