WASHINGTON (JTA) — Republican Jews must broaden their message, reach out to younger voters and work to make sure the party doesn’t turn too conservative.
That’s what some GOP Jewish officeholders and activists say they need to do after a fifth consecutive election in which the Republican presidential candidate has failed to win more than a quarter of the Jewish vote.
Many political observers thought the Republicans had a chance to take upwards of 30 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 because the GOP nominee had a strong pro-Israel record (and a relatively moderate domestic one) and was facing a Democratic candidate with a thin foreign policy background. Republican outreach to Jews — whether it was the messaging from the McCain campaign or the multimillion-dollar print and broadcast advertising effort launched by the Republican Jewish Coalition — focused almost exclusively on the two candidates’ records and promised policies regarding Israel and Iran.
One leading state Republican lawmaker believes that was a mistake.
“The lesson to be learned is we have to communicate with Jewish voters” about other things besides “who’s more pro-Israel,” said Adam Hasner, the majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives and the state’s steering committee co-chair for McCain. “We did a poor job talking about anything other than Israel.”
Hasner says he thinks “we have the right policies” on issues such as the economy, health care and education to appeal to Jewish voters, but “we need to figure out a way to get Jewish voters to listen.”
As an example, he says Republicans could attract Jews by doing “a better job of talking about our comprehensive plan” for energy independence, noting that the simplistic “drill, baby, drill” mantra repeated by Republicans during the final weeks of the campaign did not appeal to many in the Jewish community.
“Jewish voters are very demanding,” Hasner said.
Former Bush Jewish liaison Jeff Berkowitz agrees with Hasner that a “big opening” exists for Jewish Republicans on “energy security,” arguing that Democrats are “torn between fighting climate change and ending dependence on foreign oil,” while the GOP has “smart” and comprehensive solutions.
Attracting Jewish voters with the energy issue might be more difficult than such comments suggest. A series of surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee showed that U.S. Jews strongly support efforts to achieve energy independence, but they place a much greater emphasis on developing alternative fuels than on increasing domestic drilling.
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, denies that his organization has ignored domestic issues — pointing to a pro-Social Security reform ad campaign the RJC ran about four years ago — but acknowledges that an expanded focus is probably on the horizon as the organization plans for the future.
“Post-9/11, everything has been very foreign policy and security driven,” Brooks said. But the RJC has always tried “to respond to the marketplace” of ideas, he said, which is why “other important issues,” such as the economy, are likely to be more prominent in the organization’s efforts as they attract more attention from voters.
That doesn’t mean Republican Jews still won’t emphasize Israel.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whose election this month as House minority whip is likely to make him the most prominent GOP Jew on Capitol Hill, said in an interview that he believes Jews, like everyone else, want to see “practical solutions” to problems in areas such as the economy and health care.
“American Jews want to see the economy rebound,” he said, but added that a top priority for him in Congress is ensuring a “stronger U.S.-Israel relationship.” Cantor said he would be “very outspoken” if President-elect Barack Obama did anything to undermine those ties.
While a number of GOPers say their strategy for winning Jewish votes relies somewhat on reacting to the new administration, it also depends on the future of their party. While much speculation has centered on Sarah Palin as a possible party standard-bearer in 2012 who will lead the party in a more conservative direction, a number of Republican Jews say it is too early to talk about that prospect or declined to discuss hypothetical scenarios.
Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro says she doubts Palin as a likely GOP nominee.
“She was fresh and new,” which is why she garnered so much attention, Shapiro said. But “I think four years from now, there will be many Republican candidates” and “I don’t see any Republican standard-bearer.”
Fred Zeidman, who has co-chaired Jewish outreach for the last three Republican presidential campaigns, says a more right-wing Republican Party, with or without Palin at the helm, would not bode well for Republican prospects in the Jewish community — or in the country overall.
“I think if we do truly move to the right, there are bigger problems rather than less,” he said.
While Zeidman is confident that the Republican message on economics and foreign policy appeals to the Jewish community, he says only a moderate voice on social issues can capture a greater share of Jews.
“If we hang to the right, we won’t get that,” he said.
Another former Bush White House liaison, Noam Neusner, suggests that Republican Jews concentrate more of their efforts on newer, growing Jewish communities. A strategic communications consultant, Neusner says Jewish Republicans need to “get away from New York and the coasts” because it is difficult to recruit supporters in overwhelmingly Democratic areas such as the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Instead, he says, focus on Jewish communities in other sections of the country, including cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Atlanta, where Republicans don’t stand out and Jewish Republicans can more easily find kinship with others who have similar political beliefs.
Zeidman believes that demographics are on the GOP side. As the Jewish Democrats whose formative years came during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt age, the Jewish community will include a greater share of voters who, at the very least, are willing to give the Republicans a listen, he says.
“As the voting population ages, we’ll see a shift away from the yellow-dog” Jewish Democrats, referring to an expression about voters who are so strongly Democratic that they would vote for a yellow dog if he had a “D” beside his name.
Republican political consultant Jeff Ballabon agrees that Jewish population trends favor Republicans. Ballabon cites the growing, more politically conservative Orthodox community and recent immigrant populations from places such as Russia, Syria and Iran — their backgrounds lead them to generally support a more hawkish foreign policy — in arguing that a much greater percentage of Jewish voters will be up for grabs in future elections.
Neusner stresses the need for immediate action.
“We may not get to 50 percent,” said Neusner, but reaching out to the “observant and young" has to "start now.”
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says he’s seen no polling data that younger Jews as a whole are moving Republican, but acknowledges that Orthodox Jews are more aligned with the GOP and are a cohort Democrats need to reach. Still, he doubts that Jewish Democrats have anything to fear from Republicans.
"The party itself has to change its message" to attract Jewish voters, Forman said. "Its dominant ideology of the past 30 years is not going to make serious inroads in the Jewish community."