Hillary the Favorite in Race for Jewish Donations

Biden, Obama Expected to Make Some Inroads

By E.J. Kessler

Published January 26, 2007, issue of January 26, 2007.

New York’s junior senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is expected to snare the lion’s share of the Jewish community’s substantial political donations in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Democratic activists and operatives said Clinton will pull in large quantities of cash among Jewish donors not only because of what they described as her strong positions on Israel and domestic matters of interest to Jews, but also because of longtime ties with these activists dating back to her husband’s administration.

The haul is important: Strategists say that serious candidates will need to raise at least $50 million — and probably more like $100 million — by the end of the year. They say that money from Jewish donors constitutes about half the donations given to national Democratic candidates (an extremely large pot of gelt long coveted by the GOP).

Clinton will get most of the Jewish community’s money, “first, because she’s going to receive the lion’s share of all [Democratic] political money, and second, because she and her husband are enormously popular with the Jewish community,” said Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz, a Clinton supporter.

Rabinowitz, who also “has been helpful” to former North Carolina senator John Edwards, said that “sexy guy” Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden — “an extremely well-known quantity” to Jews — among others, would get “a piece” of Jewish largesse. But “it just won’t compare to what she gets.”

Clinton, he said, “has personally proved herself to the Jewish community on Israel, on which she was once questioned.”

Some see the hand of former President Clinton in his wife’s expected bonanza. “The pressure is there because of longtime involvement,” one Democratic strategist said. “People feel compelled to support ‘The Clintons’ and don’t want to be left out.”

Among the top Jewish fundraisers who political hands expect to line up with Clinton’s campaign is New Jersey lawyer Lionel Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who raised money for the former first lady’s 2006 Senate race.

Also expected to turn up in Clinton’s camp is Massachusetts businessman Steve Grossman, another former Aipac president who chaired the Democratic National Committee in the late 1990s. Grossman told the Forward that he’s “not formally committed,” but he added that “everyone knows I’m close to the Clintons.”

The Jewish backers of the other Democratic contenders, meanwhile, refuse to lie down in the face of the Clinton juggernaut.

The chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Michael Adler, is raising money for Biden’s bid. “The biggest concern the American electorate has is security,” Adler said, citing the fact that Biden has chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and that he has done “tremendous work on the crime bill.”

Adler said that since Biden hasn’t pursued the presidency since 1988, “he’s not caught fire” with the public as have some other contenders. But he maintained that Biden has shown on the campaign trail that he “understands the American public” and his public performances “create a lot of loyalty and passion.”

Linda Sher, a Chicago-area Democratic activist who founded the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a pro-Israel and pro-choice body, is raising money for Obama.

Several Democratic hands said Obama would attract money from the more liberal precincts of the Jewish community. That proved true during his 2004 Senate bid, when he grabbed the support of the heavily Jewish “Lakefront liberals” in his state’s hotly contested primary.

“I’m getting a good response,” Sher said of her efforts. “The people I’m calling seem enthusiastic. They want to do more than give money. They want to be part of it.”

Former vice presidential candidate Edwards, meanwhile, has been reassuring pro-Israel activists and fundraisers after naming a consistent critic of Israel, former Michigan congressman David Bonior, as his campaign manager.

It was an ironical turn of events for Edwards, who during his 2004 bid for the presidential nomination positioned himself to the right of the ticket’s eventual leader, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, on Israel and Middle East matters.

Randall Kaplan, an Edwards supporter from North Carolina who’s active in pro-Israel causes, acknowledged in a telephone interview that Bonior’s hiring “is a concern among pro-Israel activists,” but said that “in conversations, [Edwards] has assured those [people] that his political positions relative to Israel will not change. Bonior was hired on for different reasons.”

Bonior possesses an intimate knowledge of the labor world, which Edwards hopes will become the backbone of his economic populist campaign. “He’s not there to have an impact on John’s foreign policy stances,” Kaplan said.

This week, during a speech at the Herzliya Conference, a major international gathering dedicated to Israeli security and diplomatic issues, Edwards stuck to his hawkish positions on Iran.

Also in the Edwards column is the enthusiastic, voluble Florida lawyer Mitchell Berger, who in 2004 served as finance chairman of Senator Joseph Lieberman’s presidential campaign.

“It’s definitely going to be a horse race,” Berger said, dismissing the notion that Mrs. Clinton had in any way locked up the nomination.

*

The leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition — a key group of fundraisers who have raised millions for GOP causes — is splitting its support in the 2008 presidential race.

RJC board member Fred Zeidman, a Houston venture capitalist and lobbyist who’s close to Bush, will be raising money for Senator John McCain.

“I think [McCain’s] an outstanding patriot and American and will make an excellent president,” Zeidman told the Forward on Sunday. “He has a 20-year demonstrated record of support for Israel. Our community couldn’t be in better hands.”

Also helping McCain is RJC board member Ned Siegel, who was tapped to head McCain’s finance team in Florida.

The nascent campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for its part, has gained the support of Mel Sembler, a big Bush donor and RJC board member from Florida who served as ambassador to Italy, and the support of RJC’s national chairman, Sam Fox, a businessman from St. Louis who was recently nominated to be ambassador to Belgium. (If Fox is confirmed to the post, his son will run the fundraising effort.)

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who announced his bid for the GOP presidential nomination Saturday, is staking a claim to the most conservative element of the Jewish community — the Orthodox.

Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox activist and GOP fundraiser from Long Island, N.Y., who signed on to Brownback’s exploratory committee, said that Brownback is well known to the Washington representatives of the Orthodox community “because he’s been one of the top go-to guys on a range of issues,” including Israel, Jerusalem, religious liberties and faith-based initiatives.

Ballabon dismissed the notion that Brownback’s opposition to Bush’s Iraq troop surge might hurt Brownback among this most hawkish element of American Jewry. When Brownback explains his opposition in context, “the pro-Israel community will be pleased,” Ballabon said.

There is an element of the Jewish community “that believed Oslo was a fool’s errand all along,” Ballabon said. When Brownback was on the Near East subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was one of the “leaders who pointed out the weakness of that approach. Many agreed with him then, and many more agreed with him now. His instincts are outstanding.”



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