The White House is nurturing a cadre of Generation X Republican Jewish activists, many of them Orthodox, as part of a concerted strategy to boost Republican strength among Jewish voters — and Jewish political donors — in the run-up to the 2004 election.
In private conversations recently, Bush aides have voiced hopes that the president’s image as a leader in the war against terrorism will help bring the Republicans a record share of the Jewish vote next year, with some citing figures as high as 40%.
Many observers insist that the president faces an uphill task building a solid base among Jews. New polling data indicates that most Jewish voters around the country continue to identify themselves as Democrats and are more ready to criticize the president than other ethnic or religious groups. (See sidebar, Page 4.) Analysts say the GOP’s dilemma is compounded by the president’s new drive for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which risks alienating the conservatives who form the president’s most solid support in the Jewish community.
The emergence of an enthusiastic new support base consisting of movers and shakers in their 30s and 40s appears to fly in the face of those analyses, however. While its numbers are not yet large, it has taken on an oversized role in Republican strategy and fundraising in New York and a few other locations, and activists are already talking about mobilizing Jews as a swing vote that can deliver some key Democratic states to the GOP column in 2004.
One emerging figure is Jeff Ballabon, a co-chairman of the dinner in Manhattan last month that netted $4 million for President Bush’s re-election bid.
Ballabon has committed himself to raising at least $100,000 for “the re-elect,” as the campaign is called, putting him in the elite ranks of Bush fundraisers. His effort, he told the Forward, is going well — as are the efforts of most Bush fundraisers. The president raked in more than
$34 million for his re-election effort this quarter — more than the combined total of the nine Democratic presidential contenders.
“Thank God, people in the Jewish community are eager to give to this president,” Ballabon said.
Ballabon, 40, represents a new face of Republican Jewish activism: Prosperous, well-connected and religiously observant (he’s a graduate of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College), he works in a high-profile field — heading the public policy department of Primedia Inc., one of the world’s largest magazine and Internet publishers — and has ready access to top officials. He’s also a right-winger on Israel, and so has the credibility to sell the president’s policies.
“The president will give the Palestinians as much slack as they need to have a fair shot at success, or to hang themselves,” Ballabon said. “If they abuse his trust, he’s demonstrated in a couple of instances there won’t be a second chance.”
A former senior vice president at Court TV and onetime Republican counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, Ballabon is a charismatic figure in his own right. He is considering — under pressure from friends, he says — creating a new not-for-profit organization to articulate a conservative American Jewish social mission, building on traditional Jewish values of morality, charity and service.
Joining Ballabon in his efforts to make the New York Jewish community a more Republican-friendly place — for fundraising, but especially, for the Republican “compassionate conservative” ideology — are several other young, Jewish Republican New Yorkers, most of them Orthodox, who, by dint of their connections and energy are emerging as a hot group to watch. Among them are British-born real estate developer Michael Landau, 38, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is active in city politics and philanthropy; the general counsel of the Small Business Administration, David Javdan, a 30-something Long Island native, and Gary Litke, a Brooklyn lawyer in his early 40s. The group is not yet large, but its members like to talk big.
“With Bush being such a great president, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for him to pick up New York state, with Orthodox Jews being the swing vote,” Landau told the Forward. “We hope to demonstrate that our community is a very key constituency, not just in New York, but in New Jersey, Florida and Illinois.”
Landau is a major supporter of House Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, and said he is organizing a “series of events” for the congressman in New York in mid-September so that Jews can “demonstrate their support and gratitude” to the Republican.
But are Ballabon, Landau and their like having any real success? Are Jews in New York — or elsewhere, for that matter — becoming more, or at least voting more, Republican? Sure, say some observers, citing anecdotal evidence. Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant who has spent more than 30 years helping to elect Democrats, said he sees some movement in the Republican direction, but “it’s just taken longer than every other immigrant group.”
“As they move to the suburbs, like everybody else, they tend to vote more Republican over time,” he told the Forward, citing elections in California, New York and Texas in which Jews provided a swing vote that helped Republicans to win. Sheinkopf said several factors have contributed to a slow shift, including a generation that has grown up without normative ties to the Democratic Party, an end to the romanticizing of the working class, a disenchantment with the populist economics and minority empowerment strategies that dominate Democratic politics, a Jewish community that in some places has grown more religious and therefore more culturally conservative and a Republican Party that is obsessed with increasing its numbers among blacks, Hispanics and Jews and is therefore courting them.
“Clinton may have kept Jews in line, but the Republican Party is where they’re going for power and access,” Sheinkopf said.
Republican officials and their backers claim that the climate in the Jewish community has grown much more receptive to their party, especially in the past few months.
“The willingness of many in the Jewish community across the political spectrum to support Republicans has never been stronger,” said the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matthew Brooks. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jewish community across the country will be competitive. It is not a coincidence that many of the battleground states in 2004 have significant Jewish communities.”
Many Democrats vigorously dispute that notion. They say that polling consistently shows Jews remaining firm in their longtime loyalties as solidly Democratic national voters — delivering 79% of their vote to the Gore-Lieberman ticket in the 2000 election. A recent poll for the Ipsos/Cook Political Report suggests that the Democratic leanings remain solid, despite the events of the past two years.
But such figures don’t stop the Republicans from trying to woo the Jews — and they expect that their efforts, like the direct-mail fundraising in which they began investing in the late 1970s, eventually will pay off handsomely. As part of its grassroots outreach, for example, the Republican National Committee has a program to encourage Jews, Hispanics and blacks to sign on as “team leaders” — activists who receive information and then send it out to their own e-mail lists, magnifying the effect. According to Timothy Teepell, the RNC’s director of grassroots development, there are 2,000 Jewish “team leaders” — as compared to 3,000 Hispanic and a similar number of black ones. Given the relative size of those populations — there are estimated to be between 5.5 million and 6 million Jews, 35.3 million Hispanics and 34.6 million blacks in the United States — Jews appear overrepresented in the effort, an indication of the importance GOP leaders attach to Jewish outreach.
Ballabon thinks younger Jews don’t identify as much with the traditional agenda of the Democratic Party and are more willing to consider crossing the aisle now that antisemitism has waned in this country.
“When we start feeling more confident and less paranoid about the phantom of making kids play Mary in the Christmas pageant, we’re much more confident with the values of right and wrong found in the Republican Party and much less content with the squabbling over the piece of the pie found among interest groups in the Democratic Party,” he said.