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A Jewish President? the Jewish Money Trail Leads to Lieberman — and Opponents

January 14, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

If Jewish money accounts for an estimated half of big-time Democratic donations during the presidential primary season, then Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) would seem to be at a distinct advantage.

But that may not be the case.

Analysts say that Lieberman may have a slight advantage in the money game because he is an observant Jew with strong ties to the organized Jewish community.

But Lieberman’s base of support is the same group that the other Democratic hopefuls will be soliciting fervently.

And others already have some key Jewish players behind them.

In addition, new campaign finance laws that go into effect for the first time will change the way Jewish money is doled out for 2004.

“Lieberman will get a substantial majority of Jewish contributions,” but the new campaign laws will expand the number of dollars people can contribute in the election cycle, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The new law, known as McCain-Feingold for the lawmakers that sponsored it, doubled the amount of contributions a person could give to a primary campaign to $2,000.

It also raised the amount of money a contributor could give to all candidates and committees in each election cycle from $25,000 to $95,000.

And because soft-money donations — unlimited funds given to the national political parties to use on behalf of candidates — have been banned, there are fewer avenues for the money to be distributed and fewer large-scale donations for candidates.

That makes individual contributions, theoretically, more important, although loopholes are expected to be found around the new laws.

Analysts say the new laws will lead to an increase in contributors who are “double dipping,” giving funds to more than one Democratic candidate.

“It’s clearly not necessary, early in the cycle, to come out strongly for one candidate,” said Jack Bendheim, an active donor in Democratic politics in the Bronx. “You can write multiple $2,000 checks.”

Bendheim would not say who he is supporting, but Lieberman has some big Jewish names by his side.

Marvin Lender, the bagels magnate and Jewish communal leader, is serving on the board of directors of the Lieberman campaign.

Lender, who lives in Connecticut, said he believes the “lion’s share of large gifts” to the Lieberman campaign will come from Jewish donors.

“This becomes a grass-roots campaign throughout the Jewish community,” said Lender, who is heavily involved in Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Communities and the Israel Policy Forum.

There is no empirical data on the amount of Jewish money in Democratic politics because the Federal Elections Committee does not ask for a contributor’s religion.

But by all accounts, Jewish donors have played a significant role in bankrolling the Democratic operations.

“The Democratic Party, as it’s been structured in the last generation or two, can’t be competitive at its current level without Jewish fund raising,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Analysts estimate that candidates making a serious bid for the Democratic nomination will need to raise some $35 million-$40 million.

And in the general presidential election, parties have raised nearly double that.

Lieberman is likely to get a large share of that money this time around.

The historic nature of his campaign will entice even supporters of other candidates to give some money to his campaign, and could bring in funds from Jewish contributors who have not given in the past.

He also endeared himself to many Jews during his run with then-Vice President Al Gore as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000.

But that does not mean he will get all of the Jewish money.

Steve Grossman, former national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been working the phones for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, soliciting numerous Jewish donors.

He says the Jewish community is much less monolithic than people believe, and he is not writing off the constituency for his candidate.

“There’s a vast number of Jews who can write $2,000 checks who don’t affiliate with Jewish entities,” said Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“For those people not imbued with the Jewish community, Joe Lieberman will not have any particular advantage over other candidates.”

Support for a candidate is “based on access, past support and friendships,” said Morris Amitay, a Jewish fund-raiser and former executive director of AIPAC. “A lot of it is personal.”

In addition, many Jewish voters may base their support for candidates on Israel, especially with the Jewish state under attack as it has been in recent times.

Lieberman’s comments last month in the region, in which he expressed support for an Arab-led plan for peace and concern for the humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians, have alarmed some hawkish members of the Jewish community, and might hurt his fund raising in some Jewish circles. He was scheduled to meet with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish community’s umbrella group, on Wednesday to address those concerns.

On the other hand, those in the Jewish community who advocate a more proactive Washington stance vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might welcome such remarks.

At the same time, it could be that the Israel issue will become a non-issue this time around, given that other Democratic hopefuls are also seen as strong proponents of Israel.

Some analysts also believe that some Jews for whom Israel is primary may opt to support Bush, given his high marks for his handling of the Middle East.

And there are also many Jewish voters who will back the candidate that comes closest to their policy views, no matter what religion.

“For a significant number of people, maybe even an equal number, they are Jewish, but health care, the economy, civil rights and the war tend to drive their support for a candidate more than whether one candidate happens to be Jewish,” Grossman said.

Lieberman is one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

He supports faith-based initiatives that are very controversial in the Jewish community, and is a strong proponent of U.S. military action in Iraq.

Lieberman’s main problem, some analysts say, may not be galvanizing Jewish support, but moving beyond that support and picking up checks from non-Jews, especially liberal Democrats.

“The challenge is always how you go beyond your base,” Grossman said. “Every candidate has to worry about that.”

Lieberman is aided by a strong environmental record and is seen as having a strong background in defense and homeland security issues. He also has strong ties to Gore’s 2000 campaign, and can easily make inroads with Gore’s fund-raisers and donors.

However, in certain ways, Lieberman will find himself with a disadvantage.

He has consistently clashed with the entertainment industry, another key Democratic — and Jewish — fund-raising constituency, on issues of violence in the media.

His strong religious ties may play better in the general election than in the primaries, where he is competing for support of a more liberal constituency.

And some argue that individual donors may back away from a Jewish candidate because of his religion, even if they don’t admit it.

Lieberman’s campaign coffers are not yet open to public scrutiny because the 2004 presidential candidates have not yet had to file their contributions with the Federal Elections Committee.

But insiders say Lieberman has not yet raised much money from outside the Jewish community.

But he has gotten a late start. In deference to a pledge he made to Gore to not run if the 2000 nominee tried again, Lieberman has only formally organized recently.

The money he has received so far has been mostly unsolicited.

But no one expects Lieberman to be handicapped by that. Any momentum he lost from starting late will be made up by the goodwill he received from Gore supporters for sticking to his pledge, analysts say.

People in Lieberman’s camp say they are taking no constituencies and no individual donors for granted, because of a strong field of contenders and a weak economy that may make some people less willing to contribute.

“All fund raising is going to be difficult,” said one Lieberman supporter. “There’s no assumption that the funds will just come in.”

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