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Debate Pulls Out All the Stops
But not to worry: Two nationally prominent Jewish House members recently visited the area to drum up Jewish support for the two contenders, and as a result, made the Mideast argument by proxy.
U.S. Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) are known for their fundraising prowess and ability to rally Jewish audiences. Their visits highlighted the attention being paid to the only open seat in Pennsylvania as Democrats struggle to hold on to -- and Republicans seek to take back -- control of Congress on Nov. 2.
Most pundits consider the race a tossup. Meehan's campaign said it has raised more than $2 million, and Lentz's campaign said that as of July, it had raised slightly more than $1 million.
The national parties are pulling out all the stops to win this 7th District congressional seat, which is being vacated by Joe Sestak, who is running for the Senate. They are specifically targeting the Jewish population in Delaware County, which numbers about 20,000. In theory, the Jewish vote could be able to swing a close election.
The candidates went face to face on Sept. 14 in a debate at Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Earlier in the day, Cantor, the House minority whip and lone Jewish GOP member of Congress, headlined a Philadelphia fundraiser for Meehan, a former U.S. attorney. Meehan said that the Union League event featured a largely Jewish crowd.
In an interview afterward in the Jewish Exponent offices, Cantor reiterated the oft-sounded Republican theme that the Obama administration has unwisely pressured Israel to make concessions, and expressed heavy skepticism that the new round of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians will prove fruitful.
"I'm worried about the lack of focus on the No. 1 issue determining Israel's security, which is Iran's quest for nuclear weapons," said Cantor. Instead, he argued, the administration pressured Israel to compromise or concede "on issues that bear directly on its ability to secure its population," he said.
Earlier this month, Wasserman Schultz came to the city to support Lentz and other local Democratic House candidates.
At a Center City speech on Sept. 1 to Jewish political insiders -- it wasn't explicitly a fundraiser -- she sang the praises of Lentz, a state representative, and attempted to turn the "Barack Obama's been bad for Israel" narrative on its head.
Obama, emphasized Wasserman Schultz, has helped Israel maintain its qualitative military edge over its enemies and has revived a stalled peace process.
"We must make sure that we maintain Israel as a bipartisan issue, instead of politicizing Israel, like the Republican Party has been doing," she said in an interview at a city law firm.
Despite the visitors' focus on Israel and domestic issues, Cantor -- one of the most consistently vocal critics of Obama's efforts to curb Israel's settlement-building -- asserted that even among most pro-Israel voters, the economy is the top priority.
"American Jewish voters have the same concerns on an economic basis that most voters do. They know the economy has been terrible, and they want to see a break. They want to see an uptick in terms of opportunity and growth," said Cantor, who last week helped unveil his party's "Pledge to America."
Aside from the Jewish pols, the big names keep coming in to stump for both Meehan and Lentz. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have stumped for Lentz, while former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean headlining a fundraiser last week at the home of State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-District 17). New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have hit the trail for Meehan.
A few months ago, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down for direct talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it seemed a sure bet that Republicans would use the Middle East as part of their assault on the Obama administration. But despite concerns over tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, the election appears to be hinging on jobs and the economy, in marked contrast to midterms four years ago, which focused on Iraq and national security.
Both candidates have sought to tout their pro-Israel credentials: Meehan visited for the first time this year, and Lentz has been there several times. When asked by the moderator of last week's debate about the current round of negotiations, both reaffirmed support for the U.S.-Israel relationship, and stressed that a diplomatic solution should not be imposed on Israel. But unlike Wasserman Schultz and Cantor, they did not present widely different views of the Obama administration's Mideast policies.
The prominence of domestic concerns -- and the contrast between Lentz and Meehan on these issues -- were on full display Sept. 14 at the synagogue debate sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Matt Handel, chair of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, moderated the third debate between the two -- the first in a Jewish setting. The proceedings aired live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.
The audience had the chance to submit written questions; organizers said none dealt with Israel. They added that no mention was made of divisive social issues like abortion or gay marriage.
Debating the Core Issues
Despite an abundance of empty seats and what some observers described as a slow start from the contenders, sparks did erupt over core matters framing the national political discourse.
Lentz repeatedly labeled Meehan a "Tea Party" candidate. Meehan didn't disavow that, but said his campaign reflects the concern of an array of voters.
Lentz said that while the federal-stimulus package wasn't perfect, he would have voted for it. Meehan countered that the nearly $800 billion in federal dollars have failed to restart the economy, and instead have increased the debt while hampering private growth.
Meehan promised to vote to repeal the six-month-old health-care law, even though he agreed with some of its provisions, such as the mandate that insurance companies can no longer deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. Lentz, who has been more eager than many Democrats to link himself to Obama, defended the expansive measure aimed at increasing access to care.
The candidates were asked about an Obama-administration proposal to decrease the tax deductions wealthy individuals can receive for charitable contributions -- a change that Jewish federations have said could further affect an already difficult fundraising environment.
According to Steven Wolf, senior tax-policy analyst for the Jewish Federations of North America, this proposal is not currently receiving serious consideration in Congress.
Meehan said this was an example of the government trying to impede private charitable giving. Lentz countered with the idea that the change is needed in order to pay for certain aspects of the health-care overhaul.
During closing remarks, Lentz said that, if elected, Meehan would choose the "Tea Party and ideology over his constituents."
Meehan fired back, saying: "He hasn't changed things in Harrisburg; why would you think he is going to change things in Washington?"