Sestak-Toomey Senate race in Pa. shaping up as critical test for J Street

Want to know just how well the fierce campaign by pro-Israel hawks to delegitimze J Street is working? Then pay close attention to the Senate race in Pennsylvania.

This week J Street, the pro-peace process, pro-Israel (don’t bother sending nasty emails, I know your arguments) political action committee and lobby, endorsed Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democrat who unseated Sen. Arlen Specter, most recently a Democrat as well, in last week’s primary.

“As a former Admiral in the U.S. Navy, Congressman Sestak has unique national security expertise which makes him such an important national leader for our movement,” J Street leaders said in a statement, adding that Sestak is a “man with the courage of his convictions and a strong supporter of American leadership to forge a two-state solution in the Middle East.”

Sestak’s GOP opponent, former Rep. Pat Toomey, is running as a pro-Israel hardliner. Last month, he blasted the Obama administration for its “unusually harsh” treatment of the Jewish state, and said “It’s as if this administration sees Jewish homes in Jerusalem as a bigger threat to international peace than nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. It’s illogical and outrageous.”

So the stage is set. You can bet pro-Israel PACs and individual campaign givers who are aligned with AIPAC will be pouring money into the Toomey campaign – and Jewish politicos will be watching closely to see how well J Street does in mobilizing pro-peace process Jewish givers to write checks for Sestak.

Why this is important: one of J Street’s critical goals is to provide “cover” for congressional candidates who support Israel, but also support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – candidates who have learned to fear the campaign finance power of the network of pro-Israel hawks. A lot of Jewish Left money for Sestak will help convince other politicians to speak out on J Street’s issues, sign its letters and appear at its events; if Toomey gets a ton of Jewish money and Sestak not much, it’s going to make politicians more nervous about being seen in public with the new group.

Despite the relentless attacks against it, J Street seems on a steady upward trajectory.  Growing anger about what is seen as the stifling of dissent by major pro-Israel groups (see, again, Peter Beinart in the New York Review) could help.

But the pro-Israel hardliners have a long track record when it comes to mobilizing campaign cash, and count on the fact they see this contest as a critical test for J Street.  And don’t forget that  Pennsylvania is home to a sizable right-of-center Jewish faction that you can bet will be active in this campaign.

Recent polls suggest the Toomey-Sestak race is a tossup.

Stay tuned.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.