Can Surging Santorum Win Over GOP Jews?

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published February 21, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If Rick Santorum secures the Republican nomination, expect to hear this mantra from his Jewish supporters: In times of crisis, social issues don’t matter.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who is leading in national polls in the race for the GOP presidential nod, is fiercely anti-abortion and believes that states have the right to ban birth control – stances that are at odds with the views of most American Jews.

Not a problem, says Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“Jobs and the economy and international affairs, these macro issues are front and center,” he said. “If the micro issues, abortion and contraceptives, become predominant, then you’ve got a problem. But this is a big picture, big issue, high-stakes election.”

But the prospect of Santorum winning the Republican nomination excites Jewish Democrats, as they believe he will be an easier opponent for President Obama in November.

Among Jewish Republicans, the bulk of the party’s Jewish donors and advisers have signed with Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor’s relative moderation was seen as a natural fit for a GOP Jewish constituency that is hawkish on Israel and often fiscally conservative but averse to extremes on social issues.

“We know he’s a great friend of Israel,” Fred Zeidman, a Houston lawyer who is one of Romney’s leading fundraisers, said of Santorum. “I do fear his social views will be anathema to a great deal of our Jewish community.”

Romney Republicans like Zeidman have counted on Romney’s moderation to carry swing states where substantial Jewish populations could make a difference – for instance, in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

In recent interviews, several top Jewish Democratic activists have launched conversations, unsolicited, with a reporter with “What about Rick Santorum?” followed by hearty, relieved laughter.

“He will clearly be a nonstarter with the Jewish community,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I wish him the best of luck in the primaries.”

Such blasts are bound to increase now that Santorum is leading in polls for the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. Winning in Michigan would likely cripple the campaign of Romney, who until now (although with some difficulty) had claimed front-runner status: It is the state in which Romney grew up and where his father had been a popular governor. Arizona also votes the same day; polls show Romney in the lead there.

Liberal websites have compiled “greatest of” lists of Santorum’s hard-line stances on social issues.

“During his 99-county tour of Iowa, Santorum frequently compared same-sex relationships to inanimate objects like trees, basketballs, beer, and paper towels,” Think Progress said Jan. 4 after Santorum’s first surprise showing – a virtual tie with Romney in the state’s caucuses.

Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey businessman who is leading Santorum’s fundraising in the Jewish community, says his candidate can overcome his Jewish problem by making his election about the economy and backing Israel as its tensions with Iran increase.

“My sense is that those issues, while they’re important to him, are not what his campaign is about,” Kaplan said. “Obviously it’s a challenge. It doesn’t hurt him during primaries. In the general [election] they’ll raise it again and again, so he counters it by saying what his rationale is for running.”

There is a precedent: Ronald Reagan campaigned well to the right of his GOP rivals and predecessors, yet won nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. It was a year, like this one, when the U.S. was tangling with a recalcitrant, unpredictable Iran and a sagging economy. That’s a bigger chunk of the Jewish vote than any Republican had won in decades. No Republican presidential candidate since has matched that level of Jewish support.

Kaplan says 2012 is similar, given the jobs crisis and the tensions with Iran. Santorum has been the most hawkish of the candidates on Iran, going beyond years of “no options are off the table” language to explicitly say that he would order a U.S. strike if necessary to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

“Israel is severely challenged today, and all of us are very comfortable with Rick’s stand on Israel,” said Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “And while the economy is showing signs of improvement, it’s been bad for four years.”

Harris of the NJDC said that was wishful thinking, dismissing any efforts to compare Santorum to Reagan or to George W. Bush. While those candidates embraced socially conservative stances, Santorum has been defined by them, he said.

“It’s not that he takes a principled stand re: abortion,” he said. “It’s that he’s long prided himself on being the most far-right social issues candidate.”

Alan Steinberg, a New Jersey political commentator who has been advocating for a more conservative alternative to Romney, suggested that whatever support Santorum would lose among more moderate Jews he would make up in support among Jewish conservatives.

“His stance on social issues will be a plus, particularly in the Orthodox community,” he said. “He will have the Orthodox, Jewish conservatives and the pro-Israel community that is pro-Netanyahu and pro-Likud.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.