Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Eleven Jewish Presidential Contenders

Mar 4, 2020

Eleven Jewish Presidential Contenders

tags: Jewish American history,presidential elections,2020 presidential elections

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

The Presidential Election of 2020 has seen the rise of a number of Jewish presidential contenders in the Democratic Party. One of them is still in the race, and might very well be the challenger to President Donald Trump in the fall.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, dramatically different in their careers and records in office, were until recently both hotly contending for President from different perspectives.

Sanders is the ultimate Independent, having had the longest career in national politics of any such declared politician, in all of American history.  Styling himself as a “Democratic Socialist,” Sanders served 16 years in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007, and now is in his 14thyear as a US Senator. He caucuses with the Democrats but has been officially an Independent, except when he was contending for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 and again now in 2020.  Sanders can also claim eight years as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981-1989 before his thirty year long Congressional career.  The fact that he is proud of his “Socialist” appellation could be a major problem in attracting Independents and non Trump Republicans, and he is the reason why Michael Bloomberg entered the Presidential race belatedly.

Bloomberg would be easily the wealthiest president in history had he been elected in November, as he is worth an estimated $60 billion or more, having a long career as a self made businessman, philanthropist, and three term Mayor of New York City, arguably the second most difficult political position after the Presidency itself.  A Democrat until he switched parties to the Republicans to win the mayoralty in 2001, he became an Independent in the middle of his second term in 2007. He reverted to Democratic affiliation in 2018 as he mulled running for President to save America, in his terms, from a second Donald Trump term in the White House. His views are seen as moderate centrist, totally different on just about every imaginable issue than Bernie Sanders.

Besides Sanders and Blomberg, 2020 has also seen Colorado Senator Michael Bennet enter the race. Bennet’s mother was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. Bennet had served in the US Senate since 2009, but gained no traction and has withdrawn. He has acknowledged his Jewish roots, though he was not brought up in an observant household. 

Also, Marianne Williamson, an author, spiritual leader and activist, who has always stayed loyal to her Jewish heritage, entered the race, while not being generally paid much attention, and has now endorsed Sanders’s campaign.  

Additionally, billionaire Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager, philanthropist, environmentalist, liberal activist, and fundraiser, who first became noticed leading the movement to impeach Donald Trump way ahead of any such action by the Democratic House of Representatives, was contending for President.  He had a Jewish father, who was non practicing, but Steyer was married in a ceremony presided over by a Presbyterian clergyman and a rabbi, and appreciates his Jewish heritage.

The reality that we have had five people of Jewish heritage competing in the Democratic primary for the Presidency in 2020 may reflect American Jews being consistent backers of Democratic party goals and candidates; seventy percent of American Jews do not support Donald Trump and his agenda. And yet Jews are divided over the proper direction for the party, which explains the ongoing battle between Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg, who have widely varying views and approaches to what is achievable or advisable in domestic and foreign policy for the 2020s, as well as the path to defeating Donald Trump.

Earlier in time, Massachusetts Senator and 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry also had a Jewish paternal heritage through grandparents, while his Democratic opponent the same year, retired General Wesley Clark, also had a Jewish father who died when he was very young, and he was not informed until many years later of his Jewish heritage.

Other Presidential candidates of Jewish background include Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who announced for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, but made little progress, despite having been Al Gore’s Vice Presidential running mate in the Presidential Election of 2000; Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who tried in 1996 for the Presidency; and Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Milton Shapp, who ran a six month campaign for the 1976 Presidential nomination, but failed to gain any significant support.

Finally, Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who was the opponent of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 Presidential Election, had a Jewish father and Episcopalian mother. He practiced his mother’s faith, but often acknowledged his Jewish roots.

So of the total of eleven Jewish contenders since Goldwater in 1964, only he and Arlen Specter ran as Republicans, and only Goldwater and Kerry actually were the nominees of their parties for the Presidency. Now in 2020, there is a possibility that we will see another Jewish candidate for President on the ballot in November.

Candidates with Jewish heritage have only been actually the nominee of the party in two cases—Goldwater on the Republican side in 1964 and Kerry on the Democratic side in 2004--but both had Jewish ancestry through one parent, and it was not a factor in their candidacies.  One could say that Kerry came closer to victory than Goldwater, who lost in a landslide. 

The element of antisemitism might still rear its ugly head if Sanders actually ends up as the Democratic nominee in 2020.  With white supremacists seemingly a growing threat, we could see a very ugly campaign, which could undermine either Sanders or Bloomberg from winning the Presidency.

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