The civil war now engulfing the Republican Party is laying bare a split among Jewish GOP supporters, as well.
Some of the party’s biggest Jewish donors are taking the lead in pushing for a more moderate conservative party following the Republicans’ defeat in last year’s presidential election. At the same time, grassroots Jewish supporters, many of them Orthodox, are finding a new home among socially conservative Republicans who populate the Tea Party movement and the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The emergence of a substantial Jewish presence in the party’s hard-right wing is reflected, among other ways, in the daily prayer minyan and kosher food options that have popped up at the CPAC meetings in the past two years — catering to the strongly Orthodox bent of these Jewish conservatives.
Together with their fellow right-wingers, these Jews are pushing back hard against the post-election call by more establishment, big-business oriented Republicans for a degree of moderation, especially on social issues. A major paper issued recently by the Republican National Committee that calls for such changes — a report that has been commonly dubbed “The Autopsy” — has become a particular focus of their ire.
“I don’t feel very Republican these days,” said political operative Jeff Ballabon, the man behind CPAC’s kosher meals and Sabbath prayer services, adding, “Who needs two Democratic parties?” The RNC autopsy report can be used, he said, “for confetti in the next [Republican] convention.”
Ari Fleischer, one of the co-authors of “The Autopsy,” in many ways exemplifies the older, more familiar image of the establishment Republican Jew. A former chief White House spokesman during the administration of George W. Bush, Fleischer works today as a media consultant for the National Football League and other sports enterprises through his company, Ari Fleischer Sports Communications. He is also on the board of directors of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a central gathering point for many in the mainstream Republican Jewish establishment.
“I very much see the old edict of tikkun olam as what needs to guide Republicans as we move on,” Fleischer told the Forward, using the Hebrew term for “repairing the world.” The key to winning back voters, he said, is for Republicans to keep in mind those in the society who are still struggling.
Fleischer pointed to statements by failed 2012 GOP presidential standard bearer Mitt Romney as examples of mistakes that cost the party voter support outside its base. Romney’s declaration that 47% of Americans back President Obama because they “believe that they are victims [and] that government has a responsibility to care for them” loomed large among those mistakes, he said.
Fleischer also cited Romney’s idea of “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants. “The Autopsy,” which Fleisher co-wrote with four other activists, champions “comprehensive immigration reform” as key to winning support among Latinos.
Other Jewish Republicans are working to have their say on the state level.
Bobbie Kilberg, a lifelong Republican operative who worked in the George H.W. Bush White House and served in other Republican administrations, going back to Richard Nixon, is among those leading the fight in her home state of Virginia. During the recent presidential campaign, Kilberg was a co-chair of Romney’s finance committee, a title reserved for heavy donors and top fundraisers. But last February, during a closed-door meeting of party donors, Kilberg led the charge against her state’s leading Republican contender for governor, Ken Cuccinelli.
According to reports, Kilberg slammed the candidate, who is backed by the Tea Party movement and is known to highlight his socially conservative viewpoint. She described him as the wrong choice for a “purple” state in which voters are looking for a mainstream message focused on jobs and the economy. Cuccinelli, currently Virginia’s attorney general, has strongly opposed expanding gay rights. He also questions the reality of human-caused global warming and backs Arizona’s strict anti-immigration laws.
The need for Republican moderates on such issues “is as true for the nation as it is for Virginia,” Kilberg told the Forward. The Republican activist and donor, who now serves as president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, stressed she was expressing her personal views, and not those of her organization. Kilberg predicted in an interview with the Forward that the GOP gubernatorial primary in Virginia will offer “a clear indication of which philosophy is winning” in the party’s current ideological clash. She criticized CPAC, the annual gathering of the party’s conservative branch, for advocating a “narrow approach” that will not serve the party well.
Kilberg’s hopes, and those of other moderate Republicans, are now pinned on the RNC’s autopsy document. The 100-page report calls for a focus on winning over a larger share of minority group voters, such as African Americans and Latinos, who are widely credited with having secured Obama’s win.
The RNC report asserts that these voters have turned their backs on the Republican Party mainly because of its stridently conservative image. The paper also recommends a shorter primary process with fewer public debates, in response to the lengthy course the party went through last year. During that period, Romney was obliged to shift hard right in order to win over the GOP base, but then found it difficult to pivot credibly back toward the center to appeal to the general electorate.
The RNC’s otherwise highly self-critical autopsy report devoted a rare moment of praise to the RJC for its success in “engaging its community and increasing its Republican support.” Some 30% of Jewish voters chose Romney over Obama, a high point in recent years and almost triple the percentage of Jews who supported George H. W. Bush in 1992. “Just imagine what would have happened if the Republicans were able to triple the black vote or the Hispanic vote,” Fleischer said.
But Jewish numbers can be deceiving.
Tevi Troy, a former top Bush administration official, has been analyzing the correlation between the Jewish vote for Republican candidates and the candidates’ success in the general election. He found that until the recent presidential race, Republican candidates who fared relatively well with Jewish voters won the general elections. “In the past,” Troy said, “it was clear that the Jewish vote was a bellwether for winning over the moderates.”
This time around, Romney’s achievements among Jews did not signal any similar success with moderate voters. The reason, Troy said, may have to do with the changing face of the Jewish Republican voter, who is no longer necessarily a fiscal conservative with mainstream views on family and social issues. This emergent, more diverse Republican Jewish electorate includes, alongside the socially moderate donors, more strongly ideological conservative thinkers that make up the party’s intellectual backbone, such as William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Yuval Levin. There is also a growing constituency of Orthodox Jewish voters who, according to Troy, “are not turned off by social issues.”
Ballabon, who counts himself among this number, shares the view that Jewish Republicans can be found on both sides of the debate. The dividing line is between rich businessmen who vote Republican because “they want tax breaks” and grassroots Jewish voters who are “social conservatives with a strong emphasis on Israel.”
Indeed, among the Jewish activists attending this year’s CPAC were members of Young Jewish Conservatives, an organization that has been sending activists to the event for the past two years. The group defines its mission as empowering politically conservative young Jews and providing them with “tools to defend” their values. “We are proud to label ourselves as conservative,” the group stated on its website.
There remains, however, one wildcard among the GOP’s major donors. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul whose super PAC shaped the presidential race in 2012, initially bucked the trend of Jewish money going to relatively more moderate candidates by pouring millions into the campaign of former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Adelson, who is the RJC’s chairman, is widely believed to have chosen Gingrich for his views on Israel and not because of social issues. Many observers believe that Adelson’s willingness to spend seemingly endless amounts of money on campaign donations could make a difference in the outcome of the current intra-party struggle. But Troy, for one, cautioned against viewing the struggle one-dimensionally.
“It is not clear where he stands, but he is important only in fundraising,” Troy said, “and our problem in these elections was not a lack of funds.”
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.