Even with the contours of the 2016 Republican presidential primary race finally taking shape, Jewish donors largely remain uncommitted on the two latest contenders — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 GOP presidential nominee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both signaled they were running recently — and are instead waiting to see who will win the support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson, the most influential member of the 45-member board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, has played a dual role as something of a kingmaker and spoiler in previous elections. In 2012, he bankrolled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the tune of $15 million before moving on to Romney when Gingrich dropped out of the race. Although at the time, Romney was the favorite among the majority of Republican donors, Adelson’s support for Gingrich was influential among other Jewish donors, even if they weren’t ready to financially support someone deemed as a longshot.
Now, even with Romney, Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emerging as the likely frontrunners, RJC members say none of these likely candidates have yet to clinch Adelson’s coveted backing.
Adelson’s spokesman Ron Reese said the businessman was still looking into all the candidates and that it was too early to tell whom he would support. Reese declined to speculate who Adelson is leaning toward.
But despite the importance of Adelson’s endorsement, some well-heeled donors may base their support of candidates on close personal ties.
“You’ve got the folks that again have long-term relationships that need to maintain them, but for the most part, I think everyone is still keeping their powder dry,” said Texas businessman and RJC board member Fred Zeideman. Other than maybe those “who have had long-term personal relationships that superseded electability, but in Texas they say ‘you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya.’ ”
With so many candidates exploring the possibility of a presidential bid, some donors are looking forward to the coming months when they expect the candidates to lobby them with their campaign ideas. Electability appears to be the biggest concern.
“I don’t think that the people I know want to be Don Quixote anymore,” said Gary Erlbaum, president of the Philadelphia-based Greentree Properties Corporation and a self-described independent who has recently backed Republican candidates. “I think that it would be wonderful to be like the far right and want to be right rather than president, but I think that at this point in time — after what the Jews have endured and the State of Israel has endured under Obama —Republicans are definitely looking for ‘hope and change.’ ”
His comments were echoed by an RJC staffer who asked not to be named on the record. The staffer confirmed that most of the group’s members have not yet committed to a candidate and that perceived electability will likely be the determining factor among donors.
“I don’t think we have seen any coalescing behind one candidate or another,” explained the staffer. “I think there is strong support for a multitude of candidates: [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz, Christie, Bush and now we can add Romney to that list. What people want to see this time around is a winner.
“Hillary Clinton, the almost sure Democratic nominee, was the vehicle for Obama’s foreign policy that has put significant daylight between the United States and Israel, something that is anathema to many donors,” the staffer continued. “Whoever proves that they can beat Hillary Clinton, win and repair our relationship with Israel I think will get the majority of Jewish support.”
The sense that the relationship between Israel and the United States has been ruined by President Barack Obama’s administration is the most common sentiment among donors interviewed recently, with all speculating that their counterparts feel the same. That, and concern over what they believe to be the administration’s mishandling of nuclear negotiations with the Iranian regime, appear to be the driving force determining Jewish Republican support.
Longtime RJC board member and Florida-based attorney Joel Hoppenstein said that Obama’s response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris — failing to attend a rally with other world leaders — plainly shows the difference between the Obama administration and the candidate he believes the GOP needs to put forward.
“My Republican president shouldn’t be having to weigh whether he’s going to watch the football playoffs or go to Paris. I mean it’s a no brainer. That’s the most recent litmus test if you will,” Hoppenstein said. “That shouldn’t be something that you have to think about. It should just come instinctively. That’s the kind of candidate I’m looking for, who knows instinctively to do the right thing vis-à-vis Israel or Jewish issues on a global scale.”
Unlike most of the others, Hoppenstein made no secret that he felt Bush was the prospective candidate that he supports.
“Having lived in Florida for about 15 years, I’ve gotten to observe Jeb Bush at pretty close quarters, when he was governor and in private as a private citizen,” said Hoppenstein. “And he has an instinctive feel for Jewish issues. He has a lot of Jewish friends. He’s very comfortable around Jewish people on a personal level. I think through that, he’s gotten a feel for Jewish issues.
“He was very involved in establishing ties between Israel and the state of Florida,” he added.
Noticeably, few of the big donors appear to be considering Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, despite Paul’s recent feverish attempt at driving the pro-Israel agenda in Congress with his bill to defund the Palestinian Authority for joining the International Criminal Court, his courting of RJC leaders and attendance at their events.
According to Erlbaum, few Jewish Republicans feel they’re ready to put their trust in Paul, who until recently has espoused a strict isolationist ideology similar to his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
“Rand Paul has been backtracking for months now in expectation of a possible run for president to make himself acceptable to the Republican Party establishment on foreign policy,” said political analyst Bill Schneider. “He has been known for some time, like his father, as an isolationist. Today he claims he’s not an isolationist, and he’s been particularly outspoken in supporting Israel in ways that he devises, some of which are not acceptable to Israel, but he’s still critical of military intervention just about everywhere: in Syria, Ukraine.
“Nobody likes a shape shifter,” continued Schneider. “If he looks like a likely Republican nominee, frankly, I think he’d split the Republican Party wide open.”
Hoppenstein questioned Paul’s foreign policy evolution.
“I think rand Paul is trying to moderate, but I don’t think this is the time for Jews to be experimenting,” said Hoppenstein. “I think we need someone who’s completely solid.”
Dmitriy Shapiro covers politics for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.