In 2008, Joe Sestak’s record on Israel and keynote speech for CAIR became top issues in his Pennsylvania Senate race against Pat Toomey. Toomey won narrowly, with the help of Jewish groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and the Emergency Committee for Israel, both of which ran tough anti-Sestak ad campaigns. In 2012 we are very likely to see a replay of that sort of face-off in Ohio.

Republicans think first-term Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is vulnerable in a state hit hard by the recession and in which the president may very well be a drag on the ticket. Brown’s stance on Israel and close association with the left-wing group J Street, which takes anti-Israel positions not even the Obama administration would adopt, will certainly be part of the GOP’s message that Brown’s views are out of the mainstream. Brown’s likely opponent, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a vocal supporter of Israel and Iraq war Marine veteran, has already begun to highlight Brown’s record.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, is signaling that this will be a key race in 2012. He told me this morning: “The contrast between these two candidates will could not be starker: Sherrod Brown’s instinct is to conceal his sympathy for the naïve, failed policies pushed by both J Street and Barack Obama; Josh Mandel, on the other hand, will be a forceful, vocal pro-Israel leader and a strong voice for America’s national security from Day One.”

Brooks will have a lot of material to work with. Unlike virtually all his colleagues, Brown has repeatedly refused to sign Senate letters in support of Israel. Seventy-six senators in April 2009 signed a bipartisan letter to the president backed by AIPAC calling for “the absolute Palestinian commitment to ending terrorist violence and to building the institutions necessary for a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side, in peace with the Jewish state of Israel.” Brown refused to sign on. Likewise, in August 2009 he declined to join 71 colleagues who signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling on Arab leaders to take concrete steps toward peace. And once again in April 2010 Brown refused to join 76 senators who wrote to Clinton imploring the administration, which had “condemned” Israel for building in its capital, to stop hectoring Israel in public (“Such differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that benefits longstanding strategic allies”).

In his tenure in the House Brown repeatedly voted against foreign aid for Israel but has more recently supported assistance, going so far as to attack Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for his opposition.

No doubt, part of Brown’s antipathy to the bipartisan letters is his chummy relationship with J Street. This is the outfit that called on President Obama not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel, organized 54 of the most virulently anti-Israel House members to sign the “Gaza 54” letter urging a lifting of the Gaza blockade, provided assistance to Richard Goldstone (and opposition to a congressional resolution condemning the Goldstone Report) and voiced support for continued funding of UNESCO despite its admission of “Palestine” as a member state. It is significant that these anti-Israel positions were all so extreme that the vast majority of members of both parties of Congress and the administration itself rejected J Street’s views.

But J Street and Brown have a mutual admiration society going on. Brown is the only senator whom J Street is endorsing in 2012 and for whom its PAC has raised money. Federal Election Commission filings show that J Street has bundled more than $86,000 for him.This is in addition to donations by two members of the board of directors and many who are on the J Street Advisory Council.

At one time J Street may have snowed congressmen with the canard that it was actually a pro-Israel group. But the vast majority of pro-Israel Democrats have figured out what J Street is up to. For example, in January, after J Street called for Obama not to veto a U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) blasted the group. But not Brown. He was one of only three senators to show solidarity with J Street, attending its annual conference in February.

The favorite publication of liberal apologists for the administration’s Israel policy, JTA, explained J Street’s reflexively antagonistic approach toward the Jewish state, noting that “many audience members applauded when a questioner on one panel asked why the United States doesn’t impose economic sanctions on Israel if Israeli settlements in the West Bank are a violation of the Geneva Convention. It’s why they clapped when panelist Marwan Bishara, an Al Jazeera political analyst, wondered aloud why Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s senior envoy on Middle East issues, was invited to the conference at all. It’s why the introduction of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a fierce critic of U.S. aid to Israel, drew enthusiastic whooping before he had even uttered a word. For this crowd, the Israeli government is to blame for the lack of peace in the Middle East. Their main beef is with the traditional pro-Israel camp, not with the Palestinians.”

That’s the group putting all its Senate egg in Brown’s basket. In 2010 liberal Jews brushed off the notion that Israel would be an issue in the Pennsylvania race. It certainly was. Since then, the NY-9 special election turned to a large degree on Israel, and the Obama reelection team is spinning around the clock to halt Jewish defections. In such an atmosphere, will Brown’s Israel record and association with J Street be a problem? You betcha.