Santorum Sinks, Turns to Jewish Allies

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 14, 2006.

As he battles from behind in the polls, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum is calling on his Jewish friends to help catapult him to a third term in the United States Senate.

Next week, he will host a “Jewish Leadership Summit” in Washington for prominent Republican invitees, including White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana and fellow Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter. At least two Jewish organizations, the Orthodox Union and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, are also expected to participate.

The event follows the senator’s participation in a June 19 panel discussion organized by the Middle East Forum in suburban Philadelphia that also included Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and current Knesset member. Sharansky’s 2004 book, “The Case for Democracy,” drew headlines when President Bush proclaimed it a must-read that encapsulated his own views on foreign policy.

Both events appear to be part of a concentrated effort by Santorum — one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Congress — to rally his supporters in the Jewish community during what is shaping up to be one of the toughest fights of his political life. With election day less than four months away, Santorum, the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, is trailing his Democratic rival, State Treasurer Robert Casey Jr., by 18 percentage points, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

“It’s going to be a very close race when all is said and done, [and] I think the campaign is going to be very negative and nasty,” said Eric Plutzer, a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University. According to Plutzer, the efforts to highlight Santorum’s support for Israel and his hawkish positions on other Middle East issues would also help him shore up segments of his conservative base.

Jews account for a small slice of Pennsylvania’s electorate — they are expected to make up between 3% and 5% of the vote on November — and are concentrated in Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia suburbs, the latter of which was a key battleground that went to Santorum in 2000, but where the incumbent is now polling behind Casey. With Santorum down in the polls, some observers are predicting an unprecedented Republican effort to win not only Jewish donations but votes as well.

Jews tend to be well represented among the chief fundraisers and activists for both parties in Pennsylvania. Jewish activists on both sides of the partisan divide are reporting higher levels of engagement than in 2000, when Santorum ran against former Congressman Ron Klink, an anti-abortion Democrat who failed to galvanize his party’s base.

This time around, even liberal Democrats are rallying behind Casey, the son of a popular former governor, despite his pro-gun, anti-abortion stances. In Casey, they see a way to take down a Republican star who has become, for many liberals, a symbol of the GOP’s right-wing excesses on a variety of social issues.

“The stakes are high,” said Romayne Sachs, a longtime Democratic activist in suburban Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia. “It’s not only a matter that Santorum is very conservative, it’s also [that he is]… so powerful in the Senate, and the feeling is that if he wins this, he’s going to run for president.”

Sachs seemed to echo the sentiment, widespread among Democratic activists, that Casey’s chief virtue may be the fact that he is not Santorum. She acknowledged that his conservative views on guns and abortion were “a little hard to explain” to the Democratic rank-and-file.

Santorum’s supporters are also reporting greater levels of Jewish donations earlier in the campaign season than in 2000. “I think the organized pro-Israel community is raising a lot more money for him,” said Mark Vogel, the chairman of the National Action Committee, a pro-Israel political action committee. “He’s a threatened incumbent who really needs it, and the pro-Israel community is really disciplined about targeting precious resources where they’re needed the most.”

A review of campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission shows that several pro-Israel PACs — which donate across party lines, but tend to support incumbents with strong pro-Israel records, like Santorum — have given substantially more to Santorum this time around. Norpac, a pro-Israel political action committee that gave Santorum $2,000 in 2000, has given $10,000 this year, which is the maximum combined amount allowed for the primary and general election. The Hudson Valley PAC and the Jewish Community Political Action Committee of Pittsburgh, both of which did not contribute to Santorum’s campaign in 2000, had given $3,000 and $5,000, respectively, as of April 26. So far, the Friends of Israel PAC has given the senator $5,000, twice as much as it did six years ago. Republican Jewish activists have also said they plan to hold a number of fundraisers for Santorum.

Overall, Santorum ranks among the top ten Republicans in Congress in receiving pro-Israel money this cycle, with $57,000 coming from pro-Israel political action committees and identified pro-Israel donors, according to the Washington-based Center For Responsive Politics.

Santorum is also leaning on his close relationship with Specter, a Republican moderate and the Senate’s only Jewish member.

Many conservative activists despise Specter as much as they love Santorum. But the two Republican senators have forged a strong political partnership.

In 2004, Santorum came to Specter’s defense when he faced a fierce primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey, then a congressman.

This time around, Specter appears to be returning the favor. Last week, he told the Beltway newspaper The Hill that Santorum’s “reelection is my number one priority this year.”

Specter reportedly has helped Santorum with fundraising efforts and used his post on the Appropriations Committee to help send federal money to the state. He is also providing political cover for Santorum on Capitol Hill. The pair cosponsored a bill that would require the National Institutes of Health to provide funding for research into methods of creating embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos. The bill could enable Santorum to portray himself as being pro-stem-cell research and thus blunt the political fallout among moderates if, as expected, he votes against a competing measure that would lift President Bush’s ban on most stem-cell research. (See related article, Page 1.)

Even as Santorum’s allies step up their efforts to mobilize Jewish voters and donors, some of his backers who spoke to the Forward said that they were not overly pessimistic about his poll numbers, saying there was still plenty of time left in the campaign for a comeback.

“Obviously, it’s better to be up in the polls under any circumstances — it’s going to be a tough race for him, no doubt about it — but I would still remember that he’s an incumbent,” said Benjamin Chouake, Norpac’s president.

Meanwhile, the Israel issue has at time proved thorny for the Casey campaign.

After returning from a trip to Israel in December, Casey was noncommittal about whether he supported moving the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Since then, Casey has said that he, like Santorum, supports the move.

On the other side, some Jewish Democrats have accused Santorum of exploiting his Jewish friends. The National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement last week blasting Santorum for inviting Jewish nonprofit groups to participate in his “Jewish Leadership Summit.” “Republicans [are] playing political games with Jewish synagogues and not-for-profits,” the council stated. “In a true sign of political deviousness, Santorum has roped the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs into this recent political charade. And in doing so, he and Republicans are playing games with the tax-deductible status of not-for-profit organizations.”

Nathan Diament, director of political affairs for the Orthodox Union, sharply disagreed with Forman’s accusations of partisanship, saying that a similar event was held by Senator Hillary Clinton in May through the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

“Just because the president of Aipac gave a presentation at that meeting, it was not an endorsement of Senator Clinton’s reelection, and I don’t remember that being criticized by the NJDC,” Diament said in an interview with the Forward.

“I’ll be speaking at Senator Santorum’s forum about policy issues, as I would at a forum sponsored by a Democratic office holder to which I was invited to speak.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in a letter to Diament, Santorum expressed his “dismay” at the Democratic complaints, describing the forum as an “official Senate function.” Santorum said that he had held similar events aimed at a variety of minority groups over the years.



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