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  • Tanner Larkin

California's 39th District: With Ed Royce's Retirement, Israel Loses A Powerful Ally

In his last three terms as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce, who will not seek reelection, has led a strong pro-Israel agenda. In today's polarized Congress, his designated successor will find it difficult to pass the type of bipartisan legislation Royce promoted

California's 39th Congressional District

Left to right: Kim, Royce, and Cisneros | Photos: official websites

What's the story?

Retiring Ed Royce, a 26-year Congressman, is currently chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. Royce has been a strident critic of Iran and a staunch ally of Israel, often reaching across party lines to sponsor pro-Israel legislation. Like many other senior Republicans, Royce chose not to run for reelection this year.

The Republican candidate Young Kim is a longtime Royce staffer and one-term state assemblywoman. She has focused on economic issues, such as job creation and economic growth. Kim’s campaign has portrayed her as “independent” and “bipartisan,” and she has generally tried to avoid addressing the topic of President Trump.

The Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros is a former Navy officer, a political novice and a lottery winner-turned-philanthropist. He has campaigned on domestic issues such as education and health care, and has painted his Republican opponent as someone who would be "nothing more than a rubber stamp of the Republican agenda and not hold the president accountable."

What’s at stake

In 2016, CA-39, located in southern California, backed Royce by 14.4 points, but also Hillary Clinton by 8.5 points. The district is highly diverse, with a population that is 35% Hispanic and 32% Asian, according to estimates by the US Census Bureau. Shifting demographics suggest the seat is vulnerable to flip to the Democrats, but the race remains a toss-up.

What do the polls say?

CNN - "Too tight to predict"

Real Clear Politics - "Too tight to predict"

FiveThirtyEight - "Too tight to predict" (chances are 4 to 7 in favor of the Democratic candidate)

Ramifications for Israel

Royce (L) with Israeli PM Netanyahu and Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat in the Foreign Affairs committee, in 2013. Rare bi-partisan cooperation | Photo: Koby Gideon/GPO

The most important factor for Israel is not who takes this seat but rather who leaves it. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Royce was a key factor in the passage of numerous pro-Israel bills, including the Taylor Force Act. His absence will be particularly felt given his ability to champion bipartisan pro-Israel legislation in an increasingly polarized and partisan Congress.

If Democrats take the House in November, as appears likely, the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee will probably pass to the current ranking Democratic committee member, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). Engel has been a long-time partner of Royce in sponsoring bipartisan pro-Israel legislation, as with the Taylor Force Act. Under the current administration, he has welcomed President Trump’s pro-Israel stance while joining with other pro-Israel Democratic representatives to criticize aspects of that approach, warning of “a dangerous effort to politicize the US-Israel relationship” on the part of President Trump.

While there is very little chance the AIPAC-aligned Engel will abandon his support for Israel, he could face pressure to tone down that support as the Democratic base increasingly drifts away from the Jewish state. This drift could impact Engel’s willingness and ability to advocate for pro-Israel legislation by undermining bipartisan support for such legislation, draining the enthusiasm of other Democratic members of Congress and staffers, or pressuring Engel to shift emphasis to focus instead on opposing certain pro-Israel policies coming out of the White House.

As far as the candidates for Royce’s seat go, both apparently subscribe to the mainstream pro-Israel consensus in Congress. On his campaign website, Cisneros endorses a two-state solution while also pledging “to be a friend of Israel and ensure Israel maintains their (sic) full capability to defend itself against any threat.” Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe Kim would deviate from the pro-Israel orthodoxy of the Republican Party. However, no matter how supportive each candidate is in principle, neither is likely to live up to Royce’s energetic, influential, and bipartisan leadership in support of Israel.


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