Washington — Last month, a fundraiser for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made manifest what insiders have long known to be true:
Romney, currently seen as the Republican frontrunner, is the hands down favorite of the Republican Jewish establishment.
The September 26 fundraiser, held in the New York law office of longtime Republican activist Philip Rosen, was cosponsored by nearly 40 Jewish Romney supporters, each of whom raised or gave at least $10,000 to his campaign.
While other Republican candidates have been ramping up their rhetoric on Israel in hopes of winning over Jewish supporters, Romney has managed to secure the Republican Jewish base. His backers include practically all Jewish fundraisers and bundlers for former president George W. Bush and for 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
To Romney backer Fred Zeidman, this should come as no surprise. Romney, he noted, has cultivated Jewish Republicans since he launched his first, unsuccessful bid in 2007 for the ‘08 nod, and has not really stopped since.
“Every major Jewish Republican fundraiser has been with Mitt” since then, said Zeidman, a Houston lawyer who was a major backer of George W. Bush.
“He has a proven business record and is a problem solver,” said Mel Sembler, a Florida businessman who served as U.S. ambassador to Australia and to Italy under presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Sembler, a legendary Republican fundraiser, is now putting his weight behind Romney, who, Sembler believes, has learned the lessons from his previous run for office in 2008.
Sembler and Zeidman are among Romney’s Republican Jewish A-list donors. Others include Sam Fox from St. Louis, who served as ambassador to Belgium and as the former chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Lew Eisenberg, a former Goldman Sachs partner who served as finance chair of the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, on a parallel track, Romney has drawn a wide range of Middle East policy advisors to his side, including neoconservatives supportive of a hawkish U.S. and Israeli stance and some more realist-oriented figures from within the Republican camp.
Romney’s Jewish supporters frequently mention his business background as the factor giving him an edge over other Republican candidates.
“My friend Rick Perry,” Sembler said referring to the Texas governor who is also vying for the Republican nomination, “was a politician all his life. Mitt Romney was a businessman for 25 years.”
But another important selling point for Romney’s Jewish supporters is their perception that he holds moderate positions on social issues. It is, in fact, a perception more rooted in Romney’s past positions than in those he currently holds. As governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Romney adopted a liberal approach toward healthcare and staunchly supported abortion rights, gay rights and gun control measures.
In contrast, since entering the national arena, Romney has declared himself strongly against abortion rights and has pledged to defund Planned Parenthood. He opposes same sex marriage and supports a constitutional amendment that would upend states recognizing gay marriage — such as Massachusetts — by defining marriage as between one man and one woman. He opposes gun control laws and has strongly criticized Perry for having supported a measure that allowed undocumented immigrants in Texas to pay in-state tuitions to attend state colleges.
Nevertheless, Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a bipartisan pro-Israel Public Action Committee which has raised money for Romney, told the Forward, “He is politically close to most of the Jewish voters, who are in the center.”
Romney’s appeal to Jewish voters, explains a top supporter, doesn’t necessarily have to do with his current positions but rather with the sense of comfort he provides.
“There are a lot of moderate Republicans like me that believe in the right to choose and in some kind of gun control and we look at Mitt as someone who allows us to be part of the party,” said Ned Siegel, a Republican activist and donor who served as ambassador to the Bahamas under president George W. Bush. “He allows for a big tent,” Siegel said, adding that social issues will not play a major role in the upcoming elections. The economy, and for some Jewish voters the issue of Israel, will be the deciding factors, Siegel said.
A recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee seemed to prove the notion that Romney’s moderate image could make him more attractive in the eyes of Jewish voters. Matched up against President Obama, Romney fared better than Perry or Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman, two of the other Republican candidates who are more outspoken than Romney on social conservative issues. Still, the poll shows only 32% of Jewish voters would elect him, compared to 50% of Jews who say they will vote for Obama.
In his first major foreign policy speech, delivered on October 7 at The Citadel military academy in South Carolina, Romney made Israel a major part of this pitch. He said he would increase defense assistance to Israel, raise the U.S. military profile near Iran and explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
He cast Obama’s policies as contributing to Israel’s isolation.
“I will bolster and repair our alliances,” Romney said. “Our friends should never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”
Romney also highlighted Iran as not just a threat to the United States, but also to Israel.
“By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community?” Romney asked in his speech. “Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?”
The speech came a day after Romney published a list of his foreign policy advisers, including many who have been active in or are close to the pro-Israel community. The list included Norm Coleman, the former U.S. senator from Minnesota who is now active with the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Dan Senor, the Bush administration’s spokesman for the Iraqi occupation authority. Senor today often works with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Both Coleman and Senor are seen as close to the neoconservative camp that was prominent in the first term of George W. Bush. But Romney’s list of policy advisors also included Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in various Republican administrations who also is active with the American Jewish Committee, and Meghan O’Sullivan, a scholar with the Brookings Institute. O’Sullivan, a former aide to the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later worked for Secretary of State Colin Powell under Bush. Both Zakheim and O’Sullivan are allied with the realist camp of GOP foreign policy.
Zakheim said that Romney was approaching his foreign policy the same way he approached governance of Massachusetts, where he earned plaudits from Democrats for taxing corporations despite his closeness to business.
“He seems to be the kind of guy who wants a range of opinions,” Zakheim said. “He chose a lot of folks from all over the spectrum.”
One issue that is hardly being raised in the Jewish community is Mitt Romney’s faith. Romney, a Mormon, addressed the issue of his religious beliefs during his failed run for the Republican nomination in 2008 and seemed to have focused his attempts then in addressing reservations conservative Christians might have with his beliefs.
The latest salvo came at the Value Voters Summit in Washington in early October when Robert Jeffress, a pastor at a Dallas megachurch who supports Perry, called Mormonism a cult. The attack seems only to have solidified the convictions of Romney’s Jewish backers.
“I can’t believe as a Jew that anyone is going to be involved in someone’s religion,” Sembler told JTA. “What’s that got to do with running the biggest enterprise in the world?”
With reporting from JTA
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org