GOP donors: It’s electability, stupid

Jeb Bush, left, and Mitt Romney are two potential candidates vying for Jewish donors and voters in their quest for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Jeb Bush, left, and Mitt Romney are two potential candidates vying for Jewish donors and voters in their quest for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

2016 election

The key consideration for Jewish Republicans in what appears to be a burgeoning race for the party’s presidential nod is electability, according to interviews with leading donors and officials.

Whereas in the past, a donor’s closeness to a particular candidate or his embrace of a favored policy might have been key, the Republicans said, the main mission now is defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton, seen as the likely Democratic candidate, and reversing two terms of what they believe has been President Barack Obama’s policy of alienating Israel.

Gary Erlbaum, the president of the Philadelphia-based Greentree Properties Corporation, said the growing consensus among potential donors was that sticklers for ideological correctness were not

“I don’t think that the people I know want to be Don Quixote anymore,” said Erlbaum, a supporter in 2012 of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who secured the nomination but lost
to Obama.

“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,’” said Erlbaum, who has yet to settle on a candidate.

Most of the putative candidates have strong records of attachment to Israel and to the pro-Israel community, a litmus test for most Jewish donors to the party. They include Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

A staffer for the Republican Jewish Coalition said that most of its 45-member board – comprised of the party’s major Jewish donors – had yet to settle on a candidate. The staffer echoed Erlbaum’s
impression that for the undecided, electability was the overriding consideration.

“What people want to see this time around is a winner,” said the staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“Hillary Clinton, the almost sure Democratic nominee, was the vehicle for Obama’s foreign policy which 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.”

Romney and Bush, particularly, have longstanding ties to top Jewish Republicans; Bush, through his Florida base and also through his brother, former President George W. Bush, who is still beloved in the party for his closeness to Israel; and Romney, through his years of campaigning – he’s been vying for the GOP nod since the 2008 elections.

Fred Zeidman, an RJC board member who in 2012 backed Romney.

“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 Zeidman, a Houston area lawyer and businessman.

Some donors may be waiting to see who will win the support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose readiness to dump tens of millions of dollars into a race has proven a game-changer in the past.

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.

Adelson, the most influential member of the RJC board, was both kingmaker and spoiler in previous elections.

In 2012, he bankrolled former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich to the tune of $15 million, wounding Romney’s bid to clinch the nomination early. When Gingrich dropped out, Adelson switched his allegiance to Romney.

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-a-vis Israel or Jewish issues on a global scale.”

Hoppenstein said he was backing Jeb Bush.

“Having lived in Florida for about 15 years now, 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.”

Hoppenstein, also a member of the RJC board, said that as governor, Bush “was very involved in establishing ties between Israel and the state of Florida.”

Few of the major donors appear to be considering Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is also expected to announce, despite Paul’s recent bid to claim a pro-Israel leadership mantle with his bill to defund the Palestinian Authority for joining the International Criminal Court, as well as his courting of RJC leaders and his attendance at their events.

According to Erlbaum, few Jewish Republicans feel they’re ready to put their trust in Paul, who until recently espoused a strict non-interventionist foreign policy similar to his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R).

Bill Schneider, a professor of Public and International Affairs and Public Policy at George Mason University, said Paul was trying to distance himself from his father’s isolationism. “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,” he said.

“Nobody likes a shape shifter,” Schneider said. “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.”

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