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Iran deal remains issue in Maryland races

Republicans in Md. continue to hammer Democrats who backed Iran agreement.

Maryland's Republican Senate nominee Kathy Szeliga was a few minutes into answering questions at a campaignevent last week when the discussion took a sharp turn toward the summer of 2015.

"We've asked Chris Van Hollen to comment on whether he's still supporting this Iran deal," she told a few dozen Rotarians in Montgomery County, referring to her Democratic opponent. "We need to stand with our allies and stand up to our adversaries."

A year after the Republican-led Congress failed to derail the controversial agreement, which lifts economic sanctions from Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program, GOP candidates across the country are still hammering on it. In Maryland and beyond, they are suggesting Democrats who supported it are something less than pro-Israel.

Iran is not a top concern for most voters, according to polls.But Republicans are betting it makes fora strong fundraising pitch with conservative donors still seething over the pact, and also that it will factor into wider concerns about national security.

Szeliga tells voters the agreement was a leading reason she entered the race for the Senate seat to be left open by the retirement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Republican Amie Hoeber, the former deputy undersecretary of the Army running against Democratic Rep. John Delaney in the 6th Congressional District, describes her opponent's support as his "worst failure in Congress."

Republicans are also raising the deal in campaigns elsewhere.

Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, among the most vulnerable Republicans running for re-election this year, likened Obama to a "drug dealer in chief" last month after the United States released a $400 million payment to Iran — a transfer critics have likened to a ransom payment. Republicans are airing television ads against the Democratic Senate candidate in Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, for her support of the pact.

Yet there is little evidence the issue is resonating with voters, even among Jewish voters who are perhaps the most concerned about U.S. policy toward Israel.

A national poll released last week by the American Jewish Committee found Jews three times more likely to trust Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Iran than Republican Donald Trump. Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state, has supported the agreement, though she has historically been hawkish on Iran.

Several challengers who raised the issue prominently in Democratic primaries this year failed.

In an election widely viewed as a test of the agreement's political bite, a 30-year-old Orthodox Jew built his primary challenge against Rep. Jerrold Nadler in New York around the incumbent's support for the deal.

Nadler, also Jewish, won re-election in a landslide.

"People are still talking about it, but the venom is out of the debate," said Arthur C. Abramson, the former executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, which opposed the agreement. "I don't see it as a major factor. There's so much else going on."

On the other hand, a Gallup poll this year found that 57 percent of Americans disapprove of the accord, compared to 30 percent who support it. The issue may play particularly well with independent women concerned about national security, several Republican strategists said.

"The issue of Iran is important to me — it has nothing to do with polls," Szeliga said in an interview. "It is about national security."

Some Jewish leaders in Maryland and elsewhere — including some who opposed the deal — are concerned that the political debate on the issue has become too hot. Support for Israel has long been bipartisan, and there is a desire among many to keep it that way.

"It's understandable that it was a very, very intense and emotional battle," said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which "reluctantly opposed" the agreement.

"But I'm very concerned about people in the Jewish community who are using whether or not a legislator supported the Iran deal as a litmus test for whether they are pro-Israel."

With polls showing a tight battle for control of the Senate, states with close contests will see millions of dollars in outside money pouring in. Some of it will likely come from groups that lobbied on the deal, and so raising the issue could influence where that money is spent.

But little third-party money has come into Maryland's Senate race so far. A recent poll found Szeliga trailing Van Hollen by 29 points.

"I'm not sure what the play is here," said Ben Shnider, national political director at J Street. The left-leaning Jewish group supported the Iran deal.

"We've seen this attack play out, but if anything we've seen it backfire," Shnider said.

A spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, declined to comment. The group opposed the Iran agreement, as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The agreement, negotiated by Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, lifts economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for more robust inspections of its facilities and a promise by its leaders to refrain from making weapons-grade nuclear material.

Republicans and some Democrats say the Obama administration gave too much away for too little in return. Some Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed it.

Other Senate Democrats came together to block a vote on legislation that would have killed the agreement. Mikulski, a Democrat retiring next year after three decades in the Senate, supported the agreement, giving the Obama administration the final vote needed to save the deal.

Szeliga, Hoeber and other Republicans have recently focused on the $400 million payment the United States made to Iran in January to settle a decades-old dispute, labeling the money "ransom" for the release of Americans held by the Islamic Republic. The Obama administration denies that characterization, as have independent fact checkers.

Iran, an ally at the time, paid the money to the United States in 1979 for military equipment before the Islamic revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the government. The United States never delivered the parts, or returned the money.

The Obama administration acknowledged it "leveraged" the timing of the payment, making it only after the Americans were released. That's the element Republicans have focused on.

"We've seen $400 million in cash taken to Iran in a cargo plane ... to the largest state sponsor of terrorists in the world," Szeliga said. "I am opposed to that."

During the Democratic primary earlier this year, Van Hollen was criticized by his opponent at the time, Rep. Donna F. Edwards, for not embracing the Iran deal quickly enough. Now, Szeliga is hitting him for supporting it all.

The Van Hollen campaign responded with a statement from Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who is Jewish.

"The Jewish Community in Maryland knows that Chris Van Hollen is the best choice to succeed Barbara Mikulski — and no amount of fear-mongering and misinformation from Trump's top supporter in Maryland is going to change that," Spector said. "I urge Trump supporters to stop this shameful attempt to use Israel as a political football."

Delaney, who narrowly won re-election in 2014, was the last member of the state's congressional delegation to take a position on the deal. The Montgomery County Democrat has a sizable constituency of Jewish voters.

Hoeber, a defense consultant, criticized Delaney early in the race for his support of the deal. She said it put an inadequate inspection regime in place, allowed Iran too much latitude in deciding how it can spend new money made possible by the deal, and did not go far enough to limit the country's nuclear capabilities.

"The key issues of the election revolve around national security and the economy ... and Iran certainly fits into national security," Hoeber told The Baltimore Sun.

"We're not raising it for politics," she said. "I'm raising it because that's what I believe."

Delaney said that the agreement isn't perfect, but "on balance it makes us safer and reduces the risk of [the] unthinkable catastrophe" of a nuclear Iran.

"Now we've got to monitor every step Iran takes, continue to fight their agenda on every other front — from human rights to counter terrorism to standing with Israel," he said in a statement. "And if they cheat, we snap back even stronger sanctions."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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