Congressman Faces Primary Challenge Over Iran Vote

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Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

Jerrold Nadler, New York City’s only Jewish Democratic U.S. House member to support President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, faces his first primary challenger in two decades on the basis of that vote.

Tuesday’s Democratic primary will be a test of the 2015 deal’s potency as an electoral weapon, and of whether dissatisfaction among Jewish voters could rise high enough to take down a long-established congressman. Nadler, 69, sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Committee on the Judiciary. His vote on the Iran deal was the most controversial of his long tenure.

Nadler’s primary opponent is Oliver Rosenberg, a 30-year-old Yeshiva University graduate who once worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The pact relieved sanctions on Iran while curtailing its nuclear program, capping its uranium enrichment and limiting its stockpile for 15 years. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC, and other pro-Israel groups lobbied against the agreement. Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu derided the deal as “a stunning historical mistake.”

Nadler weighed his decision carefully, expecting it could result in a primary challenge. He wrote an essay of more than 5,000 words on his vote, published on a blogging site in August, saying it would make “both the United States and Israel safer.”

Nadler also had a long, personal meeting with President Obama before agreeing to vote for the deal.

For his part, Rosenberg, who isn’t backed by any particular pro-Israel group, says he’s “in favor of a deal with Iran, but not this deal with Iran.”

Rosenberg’s campaign is endorsed by Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an outspoken critic of Nadler’s Iran vote. Nadler has endorsements from the party establishment, including President Barack Obama, as well as The New York Times, which called him “a fearless and principled liberal.”

There is little reliable polling in the district, which includes Manhattan’s liberal Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Orthodox congregations. One major potential hindrance to the Orthodox community voting for Rosenberg is his personal principles.

The district has the largest Jewish population in the United States, according to the Berman Jewish Databank. The candidates have raised similar amounts, with Nadler raking in slightly over $372,000 and Rosenberg slightly over $314,000 as of June 8, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Still, Rosenberg’s campaign is primarily self-funded and Nadler has more than $1 million in cash on hand from previous election cycles.

The winner Tuesday is almost certain to prevail in November, given the district’s heavily Democratic electorate. Nadler received almost 79 percent of the vote in 2014’s general election and didn’t face a Republican challenger in that contest.

To be sure, unseating a House incumbent is difficult. Of the three congressional incumbents to primary elections so far this year, one was indicted during his campaign, and the other two lost due partly to redistricting.

Still, Nadler campaign manager Daniel Schwarz said the Nadler campaign is “not taking anything for granted.”

The attempt to unseat Nadler is a long-shot — but one that highlights the political repercussions of the Iran deal.

Although Rosenberg is outspoken in his criticism, the Iranian issue seems to have less bite than it did a year ago, when Nadler was the subject of full-page ads, protests and even Holocaust comparisons on social media.

“I would be surprised if it were a credible threat” to Nadler’s re-election, Kenneth Sherill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said of Rosenberg’s campaign.

The June 28 election date could also play a role, as the district typically holds its primary in September. The likelihood of low turnout favors the incumbent, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

“Usually challengers benefit from having more time to ramp up their campaigns,” Gonzales said. “I’m not convinced a low-turnout primary benefits the challenger.”