Trump, DeSantis will be the talk of Vegas at GOP Jewish gathering
LAS VEGAS – This weekend’s Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting is the party’s first major event since its disappointing showing in the midterm elections, where it failed to retake the Senate and will have only a very narrow House majority.
The event is the first post-midterms opportunity for prospective presidential candidates to present themselves as alternatives to Donald Trump. It has become even more significant since the former president declared his candidacy for the 2024 race on Tuesday, even though many are blaming the poor election results on him.
Trump himself will only speak via video (as a late addition to the program), but some of his former administration officials, governors considered rising stars in the party and leading members of Congress will be in attendance.
Former Trump officials set to appear include former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
Each potential candidate has endeavored to stake claims on Trump’s Israel and Mideast policy, which Republicans have hailed as the most unabashedly pro-Israel in the history of the bilateral relationship.
Pence has attempted to maintain a balance between highlighting his role in defending the 2020 election results on January 6 while maintaining ownership over Trump-era measures such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal that same month and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019.
While being critical of Trump’s conduct in the administration’s final days, Pence has defended Trump against charges of antisemitism. In his new book, “So Help Me God,” he cite the conversion to Judaism of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his love of his Jewish grandchildren.
Pompeo, who also served as CIA director, has by and large taken a similar track, though implicitly criticized Trumpist tactics following the midterms, tweeting: “Conservatives are elected when we deliver, not when we just rail on social media. That’s how we can win.”
Haley, for her part, was perhaps the most outspoken former administration official to call for turning the page following the Capitol insurrection, but has since moderated her tone while lending support for Trump.
She notably criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at last year’s RJC conference for what she called an overemphasis on bipartisanship in its outreach to Democrats. That criticism will be to the fore after several front-line House Democrats – including Nevada Democrats Susie Lee and Steven Horsford – defeated their Republican challengers this month with the financial backing of AIPAC’s super PAC.
Rare bright spot
Beyond Trump officials, perhaps the two most notable potential challengers to Trump will also be in attendance. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin have been feted as the party’s post-Trump future – plaudits Trump has clearly observed given his recent attacks on both men (calling the former “Ron DeSanctimonious” and noting that Youngkin’s name “sounds Chinese”).
One of the few bright spots for Republicans in general, and Republican Jews in particular, was DeSantis’ landslide victory, which saw him become the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win the heavily Jewish Miami-Dade County since Jeb Bush.
Youngkin, meanwhile, emerged as the first serious post-Trump contender after his 2021 win in a state where Joe Biden had defeated Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020.
Neither Youngkin nor DeSantis have hesitated to invoke Jewish billionaire George Soros, whether related to rising crime rates, local attorneys’ refusal to prosecute abortion-related offenses or false claims about planting political activists on school boards.
Jewish Democrats accused Youngkin of playing into antisemitic tropes over his remarks. He pledged to combat antisemitism while seeking to legally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism – which has been endorsed by both the Trump and Biden administrations, but has attracted criticism for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
DeSantis attracted controversy earlier this year after he described participants in an Orlando Nazi rally as “jackasses,” but accused those asking him to issue further condemnations as “trying to use this as some type of political issue. We’re not playing their game.”
His address to the Tikvah Fund’s Jewish Leadership Conference in New York attracted national attention after the Museum of Jewish History allegedly backed out of hosting the June event over Florida legislation prohibiting classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation.
DeSantis has won praise from Jewish Republicans over his support for religious school vouchers and attendance at the dedication ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem four years ago. He also signed legislation strengthening protections against antisemitism in schools during a 2019 Israel visit and marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day by imploring Floridians to combat antisemitism.
Like many Republican supporters of Israel, his rhetoric is grounded in religious imagery.
The other governors attending – outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu – have been much more explicitly and consistently anti-Trump, with their message becoming all-the-more relevant post-midterms.
Hogan, who was a widely popular Republican governor in a very blue state, cast himself as a party outsider during the MAGA movement’s peak. He has directly called out Trump’s rhetoric on the Truth Social platform, calling it “one of the reasons the party is in such bad shape.”
He also signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from entering into contracts with companies that boycott Israel, and called for the state pension system to divest itself from companies that have participated in the BDS movement. No Maryland state contractors boycott Israel, so the move was inherently symbolic.
Sununu, meanwhile, has taken even more of a critical tone against Trump over the years, and was largely vindicated by his 15-point victory on Election Day in the face of GOP Senate candidate Don Bolduc’s loss against New Hampshire Democrat Sen. Maggie Hassan.
“Candidate quality matters. There’s a sense of extremism that I think a lot of Republicans were painted with, rightfully or not,” he told ABC following the election. “America has been asking for more moderation for quite some time – there’s just certain parts of the Republican Party that haven’t listened so well. It’s not an unfixable. We just got to get back to basics.”
In 2020, under Sununu, New Hampshire became the 14th state to enact a statute mandating Holocaust and genocide education.
The RJC will also host leading Republican senators who have staked much of their careers in Washington on Middle East policy, including some feted as potential 2024 candidates.
Sen. Tim Scott won reelection in his South Carolina seat by 26 points, and strongly indicated that he would seek to become the first Black Republican president based on his role as a broadly acceptable steady hand within the party.
Scott, an RJC favorite who enjoys close ties to various Jewish organizations, co-authored the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, though attracted criticism for his 2020 convention speech when he said Biden’s solution for the COVID-19 pandemic was to “take more money from your pocket and give it to Manhattan elites and Hollywood moguls, so they get a tax break.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, perhaps the most controversial Republican lawmaker in the upper house of Congress, criticized Trump for not spending more in the midterms after his predictions of a “red tsunami” were proven incorrect.
Cruz was the first this week to condemn the FBI’s decision to open an investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, calling for the impeachment of Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Scott, meanwhile, will attend days after unsuccessfully challenging Mitch McConnell to become Senate minority leader – largely at Trump’s behest.
Chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm and a member of Senate Republican leadership, the Florida senator had openly feuded with McConnell for months over Republicans’ midterm strategy.
Also attending will be newly reelected House GOP leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is facing an uphill battle to be elected House speaker next year. While 188 Republicans backed his nomination, he will need to sway the 31 Republican no-votes by January 3 if he hopes to pass the 218-vote threshold for election. Many of those votes come from the party’s far-right flank, and McCarthy will likely have to make significant concessions in hopes of swaying them.
Also attending will be Tennessee Rep. David Kustoff – along with Ohio Rep.-elect Max Miller, one of two Jewish Republicans in the next Congress – and Sen. Bill Hagerty, who has led efforts to prevent the Biden administration from reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and sponsoring anti-BDS legislation alongside Cruz, Scott and Cotton.