It was the run-up to Election Day, and Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s longtime executive director, was on a swing state blitz, flanked by Republican celebrities Ari Fleischer and Norm Coleman, the former senator from Minnesota: Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania — the trio crisscrossed the continent in a whirlwind over 5 days.
At that point, no one knew who the winner would be. But for Brooks, the trip culminated in an election milestone of sorts regardless. Thanks to contributions from mega-donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and other well known Jewish Republicans including Missouri businessman Sam Fox and New York attorney Eliot Lauer. the RJC, which Brooks has helmed for more than 20 years, had run its most aggressive, extensive and high-profile campaign to date in the never-ending effort to get Jews to vote Republican.
The huge cash flow had enabled Brooks’s group to make the sky the limit. There was money for compiling a huge Jewish voter database; for door-to-door canvassing; for extensive polling and a significant advertising buy in swing states with large Jewish populations.
Measuring success, however, is difficult. For Brooks and his supporters, the point is not winning a majority, but simply chipping away at the Democratic Party’s stronghold among Jewish voters. Eroding that Democratic grip is the goal, even if the process is painstakingly slow, and even if there is a disparity between the money spent and results on the ground.
Exit polls conducted on election night demonstrate how slow the shift it. 70% of Jewish voters voted for Obama, only 4% less than in 2008. In the key swing state of Florida, where RJC focused much of its efforts, Jewish voters gave Obama 66% with a third of voters choosing Romney.
“It will happen,” said Noam Nuesner, who served as a speechwriter for President George W Bush. Nuesner predicted that the shift in Jewish vote will increase. “It won’t happen in huge numbers, but it will happen in significant enough ways.”
“The growth of RJC alone is indicative of the change in the Jewish community,” Brooks said. He pointed to an increase in the percentage of Jewish Americans voting for a Republican presidential candidate in four of the five recent elections.
But Jewish Democrats were quick to pounce on what they see as a low return for a massive Republican investment. “We were outspent by Jewish Republicans by over $40 million and they only have four points and another four years in exile to show for it. Some mazel,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington public relations executive and former Clinton White House press aide, who ran a Jewish media hub in support of the President’s re-election.
The Jewish vote has warmed up to Republicans in baby steps, shifting to a peak of 22% in the last presidential election from a recent low of 11% in 1992. During the Reagan era, Jewish votes for the Republican side reached its peak, with 40% of Jews choosing him over Democratic president Jimmy Carter. There have been no election cycles like that since. But lately, the resources made available for Jewish Republicans have grown in leaps and bounds. The group’s 2010 tax returns, the latest available, demonstrate the organization’s transformation from registering revenues of $2.3 million in 2009 to more than $13 million in 2010.
The huge boost reportedly included an $8 million gift from Adelson, with whom Brooks has forged a special relationship. He is now the RJC’s leading funder, and Brooks’s personal friend. During the recent Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., Brooks hosted Adelson and his wife for dinner at a side table in a fancy downtown restaurant. Snagging an evening with the party’s largest donor served as further proof of Brooks’s growing prominence in Republican circles and was a cause of envy for other Republican activists.
The RJC told the press early on in this election cycle that it intended to spend $6.5 million on outreach to Jewish voters. But the sum is expected to grow. Some reports have quoted a figure of $15 million as the RJC’s bottom line expenditures for the 2012 race. The available resources, Brooks said, “are historic and unprecedented.” He described his group’s work this year as “our biggest effort and probably the biggest effort compared to any other organization in the field in scope and scale.”
The inevitable comparison is to the National Jewish Democratic Council, which is tasked with reaching out to Jewish voters from the opposite political viewpoint. For years, the rival organizations were within hailing distance in size, with NJDC running a budget of around $1.5 million and the RJC having $2.5 to $3 million. But the Republican group’s recent budgets have left its Democratic rival in the dust. The NJDC had less than $1 million in revenue in 2010.
The RJC now has 40,000 registered members and four field offices across the country, in addition to its Washington headquarters. Its resources this cycle allowed the group to launch several new initiatives, including on-the-ground mobilization in Jewish neighborhoods in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania; the production of an hour-long movie criticizing President Obama’s relations with Israel, and the first-ever proprietary database of Jewish voters in key states. The database served as the foundation for directing more than 35,000 phone calls to Jewish voters and for sending 100,000 mailers.
Brooks joined the RJC in 1988 as political director and was chosen to head the group two years later. A native of Philadelphia, he grew up in a Democratic-leaning family, with grandparents active in local party politics. Still, he remembers himself as a Republican “ever since becoming politically aware,” a point he dates to the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, when the differences between the parties, he said, “were stark and clear.” Brooks chaired the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans as a student at Brandeis University, and later managed Jack Kemp’s local campaign.
The mix of political passion and networking abilities that Brooks brought to the RJC helped him attract backing from wealthy Jewish donors. “These are folks that can get their egos bruised very easily, and Matt managed to keep them on target,” said Fred Zeidman, a Texas businessman and RJC board member. Adelson’s infusion of cash to the organization demonstrates, according to Zeidman, “his confidence in Matt getting the Jewish vote out.”
Brooks’s success with donors has also brought personal rewards. According to the Forward’s latest salary survey, he is one of the top-paid executives in the Jewish not-for-profit world, with an annual income of $461,000 in 2010. In addition to the RJC, he is the director of its offshoot think tank, the Jewish Policy Center.
To a great extent, Brooks embodies a combination of stereotypes of both Jewish politicos and Republican activists. Always in a sharp suit, and with carefully combed shiny black hair, he moves easily in conservative settings that have spanned from Adelson’s Las Vegas casino to a 2010 hunting trip with South Dakota Senator John Thune, in which Brooks was slightly injured after being shot in the face with a birdshot by another fellow hunter.
But while in form he is one of the guys, Brooks is part of a smaller GOP niche these days — a moderate on social issues who steers clear of libertarian and Tea Party streams within the party. This year, Brooks would not allow then-candidate Ron Paul to participate in the RJC’s presidential candidates’ forum because of his views on Israel. Brooks will not discuss the specifics when it comes to his social issue positions. But he points to his first mentor, Kemp, as an example of a “big tent” Republican like himself.
The RJC stance can lead to awkward efforts at squaring the circle with socially moderate Jewish audiences that the group seeks to recruit. During Brooks’s recent speaking tour with Coleman, the former senator assured a concerned Jewish participant that a Romney administration would not repeal Roe v. Wade. It was a promise that was clearly not in line with Romney’s stated platform.
Kemp, Brooks said, “taught me how the party can be compassionate and inclusive.” Recent controversial statements by Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock on abortion and rape victims, he insisted, do not represent the party.
“Just as the Democrats have people who say things that make you scratch your head, so do we,” he said. But his party, Brooks argued, was the one more open to diverse views.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.