Washington — During a recent conference call in which Ira Forman decried what he considered to be misleading ads by the Republican Jewish Coalition, he was asked whether his organization planned to counter with ads of its own in a state like Minnesota.
Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he didn’t think so. His group’s ads would instead concentrate on battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, unless he could raise a significant amount of money. And that didn’t seem likely.
Herein lies one of the great ironies of American Jewish politics. Though polls show that the majority of Jews cast their votes with Democrats by as much as a 4-to-1 margin, and that, by many accounts, Jews continue to play a strong hand in Democratic Party politics, the NJDC struggles to keep pace with its Republican counterpart, the RJC, which raises — and spends — much, much more money.
Exactly how much more is difficult to pinpoint. Both organizations are set up under the tax code as 501(c)4 not-for-profit organizations (contributions are not tax deductible), so they are not required to disclose as many details of their financial underpinnings as some other political groups. Both also have political action committees to give direct contributions to campaigns: The RJC received $185,525 in the 2007-2008 election cycle through June 30, while the NJDC had $9,200 in receipts during the same period.
While both organiztaions declined to discuss their budgets or the identity of donors, tax filings from 2006 indicate that the RJC brought in nearly $4.5 million, while the NJDC’s revenues were only $1.3 million the same year. During the last presidential election, in 2004, the RJC’s spending on advertising was as much as the NJDC’s entire annual budget.
People familiar with both organizations doubt that the disparity has narrowed in 2008. If anything, it might be exacerbated, thanks to the generosity of deep-pocketed supporters such as Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul who has given tens of millions of dollars to Jewish groups and has been a major backer of the RJC.
Despite the NJDC’S thinner wallet, the organization’s influence within Democratic politics is not to be ignored. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, was the keynote speaker at the organization’s Washington conference September 23 and 24. Even as lawmakers cope with legislation to address Wall Street’s financial meltdown and finish up business so that Congress can leave town to campaign for the fall elections, the annual conference drew top-tier congressional leaders.
But the funding disparity reflects a broader difference of mission between the two groups. The RJC is more combative, trying to delegitimize the Democratic Party in the eyes of Jewish voters. The NJDC has a narrower focus to support Democratic candidates.
“RJC has the harder task. They are basically trying to convert Jews from a Democratic commitment to a Republican commitment,” said Ken Wald, a University of Florida political science professor who has worked with Forman on several publications of the Solomon Project, an effort to educate the American Jewish community on its civic history. One such publication is “Jews in American Politics.”
Financially, and as the central voice representing Jewish issues within GOP politics, the RJC has dominated its party in ways that its Democratic counterpart has not, Republican and Democratic observers note.
“Jews within the Democratic Party are very substantial vis-à-vis fundraising and numbers, and also in terms of elected officials,” Republican activist Michael Fragin said. “Jewish Republicans are few and far between.”
That shortcoming has forced Jewish Republicans, and primarily the RJC, to aggressively promote the idea that it’s acceptable to be Republican and Jewish. Unlike the NJDC, which is but one Jewish place at the Democratic table with newer competition from Jewsvote.org and J Street, a liberal political action committee, the RJC has promoted itself as the sole Jewish voice among Republicans, sometimes elbowing aside smaller groups in order to promote itself.
While Democrats — from the Democratic National Committee to the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — have long employed teams of Jewish outreach staffers, the RJC has mostly filled that role for Republicans. “The party looks to them as the party’s Jewish arm,” one Democratic Washington insider said. “If you want to engage with the party and you are Jewish, that’s how you do it.”
Both organizations have faced ups and downs since their creation in the 1980s. Each has been embraced by party leaders and at other times been out of favor. Two Republicans, for example, said they recalled Karl Rove chastising the RJC leadership when President Bush was elected, for not doing enough outreach when George H.W. Bush was in office.
Critics of the RJC contend that much of the organization’s advertising and fundraising focus is on promoting and growing itself rather than on promoting Republican candidates. They point to RJC advertising in such Democratic strongholds as Los Angeles and New York, where analysts say few votes are up for grabs this presidential election.
“We focus on the things that matter, not just growing our membership roles,” Forman said.
But Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director, doesn’t see the two — electing Republicans and growing his organization — as mutually exclusive. Increasing the RJC’s membership and raising its profile will help spur debate within the Jewish community, he said. “Issues that are very real and very important, like Iran, the safety and security of Israel, are things that are and should be front and center on people’s minds right now,” Brooks said.
The RJC’s image, though, even among some Republicans, isn’t one of promoting discussion. It’s mostly viewed as a vehicle for wealthy Jewish Republican donors. “It’s more optimized to be a country club for rich Jewish donors,” said one Republican who has worked with the RJC. “They’re not interested if you won’t give $50,000 or more per year.”
Brooks disputes this and argues that the group has broad support with four regional offices, more than 40 local chapters and 40,000 members nationwide. In 2007, the RJC or its local chapters held more than 300 events, ranging from debates to guest speakers.
Its membership levels range from $18 to leadership levels that start at $1,000. Members of its “eTeam,” can join for free online and receive news updates and invitations to public events. However, membership dues accounted for less than $230,000 of the RJC’s 2006 revenues.
The NJDC, which also has chapters in eight states plus the Washington region, has never been able to draw in money at the same levels as the RJC. Forman considers the Republicans’ financial success one of the party’s perks for being in control of the White House.