GOP Eyes Jewish Vote With Bush Tack on Israel
President's Policy Has Community Leaders Questioning Democratic Allegiance
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 30, 2002; Page A07
Republican Party strategists are hoping to capitalize on President Bush's strong pro-Israel policies to crack the Democratic loyalties of Jewish voters and donors who have provided vital support to the Democratic Party for decades.
Bush, who received only 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000, has impressed many influential Jewish groups and individuals with his handling of the war on terrorism and his stands on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Some of them say they are strongly considering shifting their support to the GOP, a move that could boost Republican success in the fall congressional elections, Bush's 2004 reelection campaign and beyond.
"Quite frankly, the Republican Party is in a position for this president to realign the Jewish community in much the same way FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] did," said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Brooks said the inclusion of Jews in Roosevelt's New Deal coalition helped turn voters toward the Democratic Party in the 1930s.
Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said, "President Bush has certainly gained greatly with the Jewish community across the board. . . . He is someone who understands what Israel is up against."
In a display of the GOP's potential gain, three groups of five to a dozen generally Democratic Jews who attended Washington's recent pro-Israel rally sought out Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist and strong supporter of Israel. All wanted advice on how best to show support for Bush and pro-Israel Republican members of Congress, especially with campaign contributions, Abramoff said. He said he and other GOP operatives "get a sense that this may be a turning point."
One of those who approached Abramoff was Jerry Gontownik, a New Jersey real estate agent who supported Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and gave money to candidates from both major parties. He said he believes the Bush presidency "constitutes the best hope for the future of Western civilization."
A son of Holocaust survivors, Gontownik said his family spends hours discussing whether American Jews "did enough" to help European Jews in the 1930s and '40s. "Today," he said, "I just want to feel I can say to my children I'm doing everything I can to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish state."
Democratic officials play down the potential impact of such sentiments, although they acknowledge that Bush has made inroads among traditionally Democratic Jewish voters and donors.
"Bush may have a bit more support than he did in his election, but Democratic leaders are saying all the right things on Israel, and I still think the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community will be voting Democratic in 2002 and beyond," said David Harris, deputy director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and other top Democrats have made strongly pro-Israel statements in recent days, but they lack the White House's power to influence foreign policy and voters' perceptions.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe contended that Jewish support for the party will remain firm. "American Jews know that the Democratic Party has always been and continues to be a strong supporter of Israel," he said. "The Jewish community has overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party for the past 80 years because they share the values Democrats believe in. Come November, you will see that none of this has changed."
Marvin Josephson, chairman of the pro-Israel National PAC and generally a supporter of Democratic candidates, said the allegiance of many Jews to the Democratic Party is based not only on Israel, but on a commitment to social justice, concern for the poor and a belief in both civil liberties and civil rights. But, he added, "if any president has a chance to show substantial gains with the Jewish electorate, it is this President Bush."
Democratic fundraisers estimate that at least half of the money donated by individuals -- but excluding labor unions and political action committees -- to the national committees comes from Jewish donors.
According to research by University of Akron political scientist John Green and several colleagues, "Jews accounted for 21 percent of donors to the Democratic presidential primaries in 2000," or at least $13 million out of $62 million raised by Gore and former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.). By contrast, they said, "Jews made up 2.5 percent of all GOP presidential primary donors and contributed $3.75 million out of $150 millions raised." Their surveys found similar patterns at the congressional level.
Jewish voters account for 4 percent of the nationwide vote, but they play larger roles in some states, including New York, Florida and California. Exit polls show that in New York, Jews comprised 14 percent of all voters in 2000, and they supported Gore over Bush, 78 percent to 19 percent. In California, 5 percent of the voters were Jewish, and Gore received 84 percent of their vote.
In recent decades, the strongest GOP presidential showing among Jewish voters was by Ronald Reagan in 1980. He won 39 percent of the vote, while Democrat Jimmy Carter took 45 percent and independent John Anderson got 15 percent. In 1992, Bush's father gained 11 percent of the Jewish vote, to Bill Clinton's 80 percent and Ross Perot's 9 percent.
The first President Bush angered many Jewish voters by threatening to cut off loan guarantees to Israel in retaliation for West Bank settlement policies. The current president was viewed warily by Jewish voters, not only because of his father's history but also because he spoke at Bob Jones University, which has been attacked as anti-black and anti-Catholic.
Interviews with leaders of Jewish organizations -- including the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Israel Policy Forum -- suggest that Bush has quieted most suspicions.
"I have been a lifelong regular Democrat, and I had a good relationship with the White House during President Clinton's era," said Richard D. Heideman, president of B'nai B'rith International. Speaking as an individual, not in his official capacity, Heideman said, "I would seriously consider, and at present time would expect, to vote for President Bush in 2004."
Jonathan Jacoby, founding director of the Israel Policy Forum, said, "In the community of middle-of-the-road Jews who are looking for the U.S. to be actively engaged in the diplomatic process, Bush is increasingly popular." A recent IPF dinner opened with a one-minute videotape of a Bush speech, and "there was a rousing ovation," Jacoby said. About 75 percent of those attending were Democrats, he said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who has made appearances at Florida synagogues at the behest of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in an interview, "A door that was previously only open narrowly is now opened wide in terms of Jewish support. There is no telling how wide this door will swing open, but it has a lot of potential."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company