(JTA) — The Republican Jewish delegation to Congress could double in size this year — if a trio of competitive races break for the GOP next week.
Of the 43 Jewish candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives this year, 10 are Republican, including the two incumbent Jewish Republicans: Lee Zeldin of New York and David Kustoff of Tennessee.
Zeldin is facing a tough challenge. Another two Jewish Republican candidates, Lisa Scheller of Pennsylvania and David Richter of New Jersey, are in races close enough that they could become the third and fourth GOP Jewish members of Congress.
All of the candidates have stories to tell: Scheller’s harrowing recovery from an addiction that started when she was 11; Cathy Bernstein’s compassion for the homeless she encounters on the Upper West Side; Mauro Garza, the owner of a gay club who reassures conservative Texans that he’s all about family values; Eric Early’s association with “Jem and the Holograms.”
Here’s your guide to the Jewish Republicans running for Congress in 2020.
Cathy Bernstein, 58, challenger
New York’s 10th District, on Manhattan’s West Side (and a bit of Brooklyn)
Background: A financial consultant, Bernstein is taking on Jerry Nadler, the Jewish chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who has served in Congress since 1992. Much of the volunteer portion of Bernstein’s campaign biography is with Jewish organizations, including pro-Israel groups, and Tzedakah Drives for the Homeless, and she’s advocating for the kinds of structural changes usually advanced by liberals, including increases in funding to “compassionately help the homeless to move off the streets to affordable housing.”
Big issue: Homelessness. Bernstein says the West Side’s already acute homelessness problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic, because of the people the city has moved into hotels and shelters on the Upper West Side. The issue has been cast as NIMBY, replete with Karens, with stories about the neighborhood’s liberals drained of compassion because of the encounters they and their children have had. “Not in my back yard” is the tone Bernstein initially appears to adopt in her political profile on Patch, the local news site, but then she pivots to the mentally ill homeless she has met while researching the issue, and her tone becomes compassionate.
Backers: Bernstein has support from New Journey PAC, a political action committee founded by conservative African Americans.
Odds: Zero. No Republican will win in the 10th. What’s intriguing about Bernstein is that she is using her platform to bring attention to the plight of the homeless.
Eric Early, 55, challenger
California’s 28th District, which includes West Hollywood and Burbank in Los Angeles
Background: Early is an attorney who once worked in children’s television production and for splatter movie king Roger Corman. In his bio, he says he wrote several episodes of “GI Joe” and “Jem and the Holograms.” He touts his success as typical of the American story, born to Jewish immigrants who worked hard to give their kids an opportunity. His campaign recently propagated the falsehood that the Democrat he is trying to unseat, Adam Schiff, is related to liberal billionaire George Soros, and then he defended himself by saying that Soros is a Nazi sympathizer — itself an anti-Semitic trope.
Big issue: Unseating Schiff, the scourge of President Donald Trump, whom Early has called “one of the greatest presidents in the history of the greatest country in human history.” One of Early’s ads called “The Schiff Pandemic” accuses the chairman of the House Intelligence Community of intensifying the coronavirus pandemic by distracting Americans with the Trump impeachment trial in January. “Schiff lied, Americans died,” Early says.
Backers: According to Early’s campaign website, he has some establishment backing, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He also cites Dennis Prager, the Jewish writer who has been accused of advancing “alt-right” themes in his online videos, as a supporter.
Odds: Virtually none in the solidly Democratic district.
Mauro Garza, 57, challenger
Texas’ 20th District, which runs west of San Antonio
Background: Garza, who is seeking to unseat Joaquin Castro (twin brother of the former presidential hopeful Julian Castro), doesn’t fit the typical profile for a GOP candidate: He owns a San Antonio LGBTQ club, Pegasus, famous for its drag shows. But he told a conservative advocacy group, Texas Family Action, he is in “complete support of the Texas Republican Party platform” including “celebrating traditional marriage.” Garza’s announcement that he would run led some in the LGBTQ community to call for a boycott of his business. “Every time we spend our hard-earned dollars at Pegasus Nightclub, we are paying to support our oppression,” said the group, Protest the Peg.
Big issue: He doesn’t like socialism. “Fight Socialism and Keep America Great” is one of 9 points on his barebones campaign issues page. An Austin podcaster, Abe Abdelhadi, a year ago pressed him over a good part of an hour about what he means by “socialism.” Abdelhadi got a little frustrated with Garza’s platform. “What is it going to include other than Joaquin [Castro] is a socialist, because honestly he’s not.” (Abdelhadi started the podcast telling Garza, “You’re sort of like a unicorn, you’re a gay Latino man running on the Republican ticket for Congress.” Garza corrected him: “I’m a Jewish gay Hispanic running for Congress.” Abdelhadi marveled at that fact, which he called “hilarious.”)
Backers: The Republican Jewish Coalition is not endorsing Garza. U.S. Impact, a conservative political action committee backing Indian Americans, is. It’s not clear why, but the Texas-based PAC has this slogan on its web page captioning photos of Trump meeting his Indian counterpart: “Howdy Modi.”
Odds: The district has never sent a Republican to Congress.
David Kustoff, 54, incumbent
Tennessee’s 8th District, which runs east and north from Memphis
Background: Kustoff has been in Congress since 2017. His district covers a big swath of rural and small town Tennessee, and Kustoff works every corner during campaigns. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he is often asked by his constituents which church he attends; when he tells them he is Jewish, he says, more often than not they are delighted. Kustoff and Democrat Steve Cohen are two Jews representing the entirety of Memphis, and Temple Israel gossip has been known to come up when they meet on the plane back from Washington, D.C. Kustoff was also the Jewish Republican designated in 2019 to embarrass Democrats about anti-Semitism in a complicated parliamentary maneuver; it backfired.
Big issue: The first item on the issues page of Kustoff’s campaign website is “Supporting the Trump agenda,” and Trump’s name appears 10 times on the page. Kustoff does not initiate much legislation; his congressional website’s issues page is mostly about other lawmakers’ initiatives.
Backers: The Republican Jewish Coalition is supporting Kustoff, who faces a Democratic challenger named Erika Stotts Pearson.
Odds: Kustoff’s district is solidly Republican.
Laura Loomer, 27, challenger
Florida’s 21st District, which covers the Atlantic coastline from Delray Beach to Palm Beach
Background: Loomer is a right-wing provocateur and self-described “Islamophobe” who has worked for a number of conservative news sites. She told JTA she was first moved to run when incumbent Jewish Democrat Lois Frankel would not help her in her fight against social media platforms that had banned her. Loomer had been banned not just from Twitter and Facebook, but from ride share services for demanding that they make it possible for her to reject Muslim drivers. The race has turned into a battle for the soul of the heavily Jewish district, with Loomer calling Frankel a self-hating Jew and sprinkling her ads targeting Frankel with Yiddishisms. She has said Democrats are “walking Jews to the gas chamber” for not doing enough to quash anti-Semites in their ranks.
Big issue: Loomer has said she’s an Islamophobe in part because of how she says Muslims treat women.
Backers: The local Republican Party, and President Donald Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago residence/club is in the District and who hates the fact that his congresswoman is a Democrat. Not endorsing: the Republican Jewish Coalition, earning Loomer’s rebuke.
Odds: An October poll shows Loomer losing 2-1 — but Trump’s straight-ticket in-person vote this weekend means she can count the president among her votes.
George Mitris, 60, challenger
New York’s 25th District, which includes Rochester and its environs
Background: An attorney and businessman, Mitris and his wife Slagana are major contributors to the Rochester Jewish community. On the campaign trail, he talks about his family’s flight from the fascist takeover of Greece in 1968 when he was 8 years old, and his wife’s family’s flight from communist Yugoslavia. The Democrat and Chronicle reported that it was hard to discern policy differences between Mitris and the incumbent Democrat he is challenging, Joseph Morelle, at their Oct. 7 debate. That’s because Mitris tacks far more liberal than the GOP. He opposes dismantling the Affordable Care Act, he says “Black lives matter” and he favors some gun controls.
Big issue: Bipartisanship. Yes, virtually every congressional nominee pledges to cross the aisle, but Mitris makes it his top priority on his campaign website.
Backers: None aside from the Monroe County Republican and Conservative parties.
Odds: The District once swung back and forth, but in recent years has been solidly Democratic. Morelle, a freshman, won 59% of the vote in 2018.
David Richter, 54, challenger
New Jersey’s 3rd District, which runs from outside Philadelphia through central New Jersey
Background: Richter, who is trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Andy Kim, runs an eponymous asset management company after retiring in 2017 as the CEO of a construction management company founded by his father, Hill International. The company had hit a slump because of the 2008 recession and the 2011 Arab Spring — Hill had substantial business in Libya — and an activist investor pressed for Richter’s departure. In an ad, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spins what appears to have been an unexceptional transition into saying Richter was overcompensated, while the company was losing millions — a sign of Democrats’ concern that the district, which trends Republican, could swing back.
Big issue: There is no single issue. His website’s issues page is a series of one-paragraph summaries of typical Republican policy positions: less government spending, secure borders, lower taxes. One of the few issues to get more space is the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Richter excoriates and attributes to Kim, who was for a period a White House adviser on Iraq and had little to nothing to do with the Iran deal or Israel policy. Richter’s website also accuses Kim of advising Obama to allow a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy; Kim had been out of government for more than a year at that time.
Backers: The Republican Jewish Coalition has thrown its support behind Richter.
Odds: Richter has a shot against Kim: the Cook Political Report rates the district “lean Democrat,” just shy of “toss-up.”
Lisa Scheller, 61, challenger
7th District of Pennsylvania, encompassing the Lehigh Valley
Background: Scheller is the chairman and president of Silberline Manufacturing, a business founded by her grandfather that makes paints and coatings. She also runs a cafe that employs recovering addicts, reflecting her frankness about her struggles with addiction, from age 11 to 22, including to heroin, and surviving an abusive boyfriend who beat her almost to death. She’s running against incumbent Susan Wild, making it a race between two Jewish candidates in a region that has fewer than 10,000 Jews. One of their debates was hosted by the local Jewish federation, and on Oct. 22 — less than two weeks before the election — Scheller hosted a “Night on Israel and Jewish Policy.” She speaks fluent Hebrew and has a home in southern Israel.
Big issue: Jobs. Scheller says the Green New Deal, an environmental reform package favored by the Democratic Party’s progressives, would be a job killer and would cost each household in the Lehigh Valley as much as $75,000. Wild says she supports the goals of the Green New Deal, which would replace fossil fuel jobs with clean energy jobs, but not necessarily how it proposes getting to clean energy.
Backers: The Republican Jewish Coalition is supporting Scheller.
Odds: The Cook Political Report includes the 7th in its competitive races, but rates it likely Democratic.
Margaret Streicker, 45, challenger
Connecticut’s 3rd District, which covers the New Haven area
Background: Streicker runs a real estate firm and, if elected, would be one of the top 10 richest lawmakers in Congress. She’s a trustee of the Jewish Museum and of Temple Emanu-El in New York. She’s facing Rosa DeLauro, one of the leaders of the Democratic caucus in the House, who is married to the Jewish Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. In an ad, Streicker accuses DeLauro of using her office to “line her own pockets,” probably an allusion to the money Greenberg earns by surveying for the Democratic Party. Streicker has her own issues, having paid fines for violating rent regulations.
Big issues: Cutting taxes, reforming health care and preserving social safety nets for seniors. Her campaign’s issues page does not give details, but merely stepping up in defense of entitlements identifies Streicker as a relative moderate in her party. Streicker distances herself from Trump and backs abortion rights. She says she would join the bipartisan Problem Solvers’ Caucus if elected.
Backers: In one of her campaign ads — Streicker is spending plenty on her own campaign — she depicts Democrats as soft on crime, and the Connecticut Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed her.
Odds: Not great: DeLauro is so confident she has yet to bother to run ads. The candidates faced each other for the first time in a debate last Thursday at the Jewish Community Center in Woodbridge. Analysts say Streicker may be setting herself up for a future run for office, should Republicans regain cachet in the Northeast where they have all but wiped out.
Lee Zeldin, 40, incumbent
New York’s 1st District, which covers the eastern half of Long Island
Background: Zeldin has represented his district since 2015. When he graduated from law school at age 23, he was the youngest attorney in New York State. An army vet, he has become a de facto GOP spokesman on military issues. The GOP has also made Zeldin its preeminent Israel advocate, making him the chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus. With Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Zeldin cohosts the congressional Hanukkah party in the Library of Congress.
Big issue: Defending Trump. Zeldin played a front-and-center role attacking House Democrats during the impeachment hearings. He was named to the defense team for the Senate trial, unusual for a youthful congressman in his third term. How dedicated was Zeldin to defending Trump? He led calls for the next Republican-led House to expunge Trump’s impeachment, which may not even be possible. Trump has conferred on Zeldin his ultimate compliment, retweeting him dozens of times.
That was before the pandemic: Zeldin is barely mentioning Trump these days. In an Oct. 19 League of Women Voters debate with his challenger, Nancy Goroff, Zeldin did not mention Trump once and was careful to phrase Trump’s pro-Israel accomplishments in the passive voice. “The Embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem; the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” he said. “Full normalization of relations recently announced between Israel and the UAE, recently announced between Israel and Bahrain, other countries are coming on board as well.”
Backers: Zeldin has the support of mainstream pro-Israel groups NORPAC and Pro-Israel America, as well as the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Odds: Zeldin is feeling the heat: Polls show him neck and neck with Goroff. Zeldin had been expecting a replay of his bitter fight in 2018 with Perry Gershon, a financier; his campaign was so taken aback when Goroff edged Gershon in the primary, Zeldin’s statement that day didn’t mention her and it took weeks for him to mount negative attacks on her.