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What Campaign Donor Lists Tell Us About Changing Nature of Jewish Political Power

Who speaks for the Jews? It’s an age-old question that’s often asked by partisans of every Jewish cause. What we usually mean is: Who pleads the Jewish case in the halls of decision-making? And no less important: Who decides what is the Jewish agenda?

This campaign season we need to ask another question that sounds similar but isn’t really the same: Who represents the Jewish community in the political arena — and equally important, in the public eye?

One reason for the shift in focus is the Bernie Sanders campaign. As I argued in these pages recently, Sanders’s April 15 speech at the Vatican conference on economic justice, considered together with the central role played at that conference by economist Jeffrey Sachs, strongly suggests that Jews continue to figure in a big way — in perception and reality alike — in global efforts for economic fairness. Of course, one speech and one conference don’t prove such a global assertion. They merely open up what must be larger discussion down the road. But the point is an important one. Looking at Jewish lobbying in Washington doesn’t give anything like a full picture of Jewish political activity.

Now we have another data point: campaign donations.

A new Washington Post analysis of this political season’s campaign donations finds that “close to half” of all Super PAC money, or about $249 million (that is, 41% of a total $607 million), came from just 50 donors. The Post’s list shows that 36 of those donors gave to Republican-leaning Super PACs and 14 to Democratic-leaning committees.

My own analysis of the list shows that 20 of the 50 are Jewish. Nine of them give to Republicans and 11 to Democrats.

Of the three remaining Democratic donors, one is not Jewish. A second is someone I’m unfamiliar with. A third is an environmental fund that receives its money from a wide variety of smaller donors.

The Post’s analysis looks at campaign donations through February, as reported to the Federal Election Commission and crunched by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Center for Responsive Politics publishes its own list on its website, OpenSecrets.org. It’s been updated through March and therefore includes a slightly different roster of names. But the bottom line is nearly the same: 35 Republican and 15 Democrats. The Jewish breakdown is also similar: 12 Democrats and eight Republicans for a total of 20. One of the three remaining Democrats is not Jewish; two others are people I’m not familiar with.

A second OpenSecrets list shows top donors to all “outside groups,” including but not limited to Super PACs. If we look at an arbitrary cutoff, donors of $1 million or more, we find 81 individuals total — the original 50 plus 31 smaller donors (if we can call $1 million in donations “small”). The additional 31 include nine Democrats and 22 Republicans. Eleven of them are Jewish, including six Republicans and five Democrats.

Once again, one list of presidential mega-donors doesn’t tell the whole story of who gives what in political campaign finance. It’s only the opening of a discussion. But it’s a highly suggestive opening — and, I’d argue, an instructive one. For starters, these initial results should explode a few hardy myths.

One myth is that Jewish politics is synonymous with Democratic politics. Conservative historian Rick Brookhiser once wrote jokingly that the only difference between Democratic politics and Reform Judaism is the holidays. That was once substantially true. It’s still more true than false where Jewish voting is concerned. But in big donations, Jewish Republicans now nearly match Democrats. That’s important.

Another myth is that Jewish influence is declining in the Democratic Party. There’s a bit of truth to that; there are major currents in the liberal camp that no longer overlap easily with mainstream Jewish community activism. But a look at the big donor lists reminds us of one sobering, often overlooked reality: the overwhelming dependence of Democrats on Jewish donors. True, Democrats still get significant money from labor unions, though the slow death of the labor movement casts a cloud over that funding source. There are other liberal clusters that bundle meaningful cash into Democratic coffers, including environmental activists, feminists and minority rights groups. But in terms of individual mega-donors, if you’re talking about wealthy liberals, you’re mostly talking about Jews. There just aren’t that many rich liberal gentiles.

What does all this have to do with Bernie Sanders? Just this: It points us to three main categories of Jewish political activism, each of which casts its own large shadow on the national stage. One is the small army of progressive activists — antiwar, environmental, labor, immigration, minority rights, gender rights — of whom Bernie has emerged in a giant way as the most visible. They’ve traditionally been ignored in examinations of Jewish politics, but they cannot be dismissed anymore. This year they’re on the map.

The other two are the two groups of big campaign donors, roughly evenly matched between Democrats and Republicans, with a slight edge to Democrats in numbers, though probably not in total cash.

Additionally, any such breakdown of categories would need to include the so-called major Jewish organizations, which continue to have a large footprint in public affairs. That makes four categories. You might even call them four camps.

One of the most interesting things about these donor lists is who’s not there: Sheldon Adelson. The Las Vegas casino magnate emerged in 2012 as the biggest individual campaign donor in history, and he’s come to be regarded as the GOP kingmaker par excellence. This year, though, it’s been widely reported that he’s been sitting out the Republican primaries. Apparently he’s withholding his endorsement and waiting to see who gets the nomination. On both sides, of course, the results of the parties’ nominating conventions will change the picture altogether. We’ll keep you up to date. Watch this space.

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