Trailing in Polls, GOP Senator Reaches Out to Jews

By Jennifer Siegel

Published October 27, 2006, issue of October 27, 2006.
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As Senator Rick Santorum held court at an October 19 campaign event, he evoked the menace of Islamic fundamentalists — and laid down a guilt trip — to rally dozens of Jewish supporters.

Trailing in a race that could hand back control of the Senate to the Democrats, Santorum warned the 50 supporters in attendance that Iran poses a grave threat to world security — a greater threat than Nazi Germany did in the 1930s — and painted himself as the only candidate who would ensure that the gathering storm in Tehran is confronted. The United States and Israel, he added, will end up having to fight alone in the war against “Islamic fascism” — making the Senate race about nothing less than world security.

With fellow Pennsylvania senator and senior Jewish Republican Arlen Specter standing by his side, Santorum implored audience members to do whatever they could to help, because, surely, one day their own children would call on them to account for what they did or did not do during this critical time. “What will you tell your kids?” the lawmaker admonished, assuring the crowd that his race — win or lose — would not be forgotten by history. “It’s your time, not just mine, to do something.” “This,” Santorum concluded, allowing his frayed nerves to surface, “is my burden.”

The subtext of the speech was painfully clear: Santorum, a vocal champion of the Jewish state who, by his own admission, finds himself “in the fight of his political life,” is counting on pro-Israel friends to help him pull out a surprise victory over his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., who has held a solid lead in the polls for months. As the campaign enters its final weeks, Santorum also has attended a fund-raiser in Pittsburgh, with a $2,000 minimum donation and 35-40 people, that was co-hosted by David Shapira, head of Giant Eagle, Inc. Earlier this week, Santorum was scheduled to attend a fund-raiser with pro-Israel Republicans in Philadelphia.

Two weeks before Election Day, the 48-year-old, two-term senator trails Casey anywhere from five to 13 percentage points, depending on the poll. A Santorum defeat would supply Democrats with one of the six seats needed to win control of the Senate.

Beyond the circle of his staunch supporters, the open question is whether Jewish voters — who constitute less than 5% of Pennsylvania’s statewide electorate, but are concentrated in important swing suburbs outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — will overlook their general dissatisfaction with the GOP, as well as Santorum’s conservative stances on social issues, and vote on the basis of the senator’s strong support for Israel.

In 2000, Santorum captured nearly 40% of the Jewish vote, against Ron Klink, a Democrat who was seen as weak on Israel and opposed both abortion and gun control. While Klink failed to generate enthusiasm among Jews in Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs, this year Casey, also a pro-life Democrat, has rallied substantial Jewish support, a turnaround observers attribute in part to a more highly charged political environment and frustration over six years of GOP rule. A poor showing for Santorum this time around in the Jewish community would raise questions about the ability of even the most pro-Israel of religious conservatives to win significant Jewish support at a time of intense partisan divisions.

A Catholic who reportedly attends mass almost every day, the lawmaker was once included on a list of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals,” compiled by Time magazine. Santorum has staked out positions far to the right of most American Jews on a variety of domestic issues, including gay marriage and abortion rights. And the Casey campaign has worked hard to paint him as a loyal ally of President Bush, who is increasingly unpopular in the state.

At the October 19 event, Specter tried to present Santorum as a freethinking critic of Bush. “This guy is very independent — I wish you could see him raising hell with the president,” Specter said.

Despite his conservative domestic positions, Santorum has been successful in building a loyal, albeit limited, network of Jewish donors and activists.

During his 16 years in Congress, he has distinguished himself not only as a vocal defender of Israel but also as a defender of Jews worldwide. He has co-sponsored, along with Senator John Kerry, religious protections for workers. He also strongly backed the creation of a State Department office to monitor worldwide antisemitism, and introduced a resolution stating that the comprehensive Middle East peace agreement should take into account the 900,000 Jews who left Arab lands a half-century ago.

Through a congressional working group on religious liberty that he founded, Santorum builds support for conservative priorities such as faith-based initiatives but also devotes considerable staff time to advocating on behalf of victims of religious discrimination around the world.

In a dozen interviews with the Forward, both defenders and critics of Santorum said they believed that his activism on behalf of the Jewish community is inspired by an authentic concern.

According to one longtime Jewish activist, who has known the senator since he was a political tyro running for Congress in 1990, Santorum was initially surprised by the gulf between himself and the bulk of Jewish voters on a host of domestic issues.

The Jewish activist told the Forward that early in his career, at a discussion with Jewish communal leaders sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, he was asked about his position on gun control and caught off guard by the caustic response to his assessment that the real issue is criminals.

“It was the first time he came to Philadelphia to address a Jewish audience,” the activist recalled. “I think he was taken aback. There was a fairly heated discussion, and he seemed to be somewhat surprised that the feeling in favor of limited access to guns was as strong as it was in the Jewish community.” David Ehrenworth, an attorney who supervised Santorum during his time at a law firm in Pittsburgh — and a former Santorum supporter who is backing Casey in the current race — recalled that while Santorum “didn’t have that many friends in the Jewish community” during that first long-shot campaign, he was, even then, a strong supporter of Israel who actively reached out for Jewish support.

And once Santorum became a congressman, Ehrenworth said, “he realized that there was a contingency here that would be appreciative of what he was doing, and to a certain extent a number of people embraced him.”

“He finds a lot of common points on intersection between himself and the Jewish people and the land of Israel,” said a top Santorum aide with ties to right-wing pro-Israel circles, Barbara Ledeen. “The whole concept of family” — Santorum has six children — “he takes as a very Old Testament concept.”

“The Catholics aren’t as biblically oriented as evangelicals, but the whole tradition of charity, the tradition of family and the tradition of constant learning animates him,” Ledeen said.

Lou Weiss, a Republican supporter from the Pittsburgh area who traveled to Israel with Santorum in the late 1990s, said the lawmaker was particularly aggressive in defending the Israeli government during a meeting with a Vatican representative.

The senator is adept at retail politics and alliance building, essential tools of the long-serving politician. Across the state, he is known as a legislator who brings home money, and that has included funding for services in the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, administered by the Pittsburgh Federation, as well $100,000 for the city’s Holocaust museum. He personally hosts a monthly roundtable in Philadelphia for 40 to 70 supporters, including Jewish Republicans. A campaign staffer has met nearly that often over the past year with a core group of about a half-dozen Jewish supporters to work on outreach efforts. With Election Day looming, pro-Israel supporters said they are committed to Santorum, win or lose.

“I’m a single-issue voter,” said Mark Felgoise, a moderate Republican who disagrees with Santorum on abortion rights and on stem cells and who voted for his opponent six years ago.

“People need to stick with guys like Santorum when they need our help,” Felgoise said, “because they’re there when we need their help.”

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