With the announcement this week that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio has become the 16th candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Jewish GOP insiders are sorting through this assortment of pro-Israel riches, for every one of the candidates seems to have compassion and understanding for Israel’s numerous predicaments.
There are more than 50 directors on the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board, and “I don’t know who’s in Donald [Trump’s] camp,” said Phil Rosen, an RJC director. He continued, “Though he’s been a very strong supporter of Israel, there is at least someone on the RJC board who supports at least one of those candidates. That’s good, because whoever wins, we have to have someone in his inner circle.”
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Sen. Al D’Amato and Gov. George Pataki, recalled, “Back when I was a Democrat, my first campaign was for Henry Jackson,” the famously pro-Israel senator from Washington who was running for the Democratic nomination in 1976. “I don’t remember if there were seven or eight Democratic candidates, but it shocked me that the worst one [Jimmy Carter] ended up being president. So when you have [possibly] 20 candidates on the Republican side, you’re not going to able to figure out this early who’s trending in the Jewish community.
“The only thing you might already know,” added Wiesenfeld, “is that Rand Paul,” pro-Israel but an isolationist, “is not going anywhere with us. You’ll probably know that Donald Trump, though he’s a great friend of Israel, has handled himself in too erratic a fashion. He’s not using a proper political consultant; what these consultants do is protect these candidates from themselves. That’s what they do for a living.”
Nevertheless, the Washington Post reported that Trump has almost twice the support (24 percent) of any other candidate, though the poll was taken before Trump’s disparaging remarks about Sen. John McCain’s captivity in Vietnam were widely reported.
Fred Zeidman, former chair of the U.S. Holocaust Museum and a member of the RJC board, told us by telephone from Houston that he’s “clearly supporting Jeb [Bush].” However, “We’re going to see the Jewish vote on the Republican side really spread, and a lot of that is because all of the candidates are strongly supportive of Israel. Ted Cruz has been so strongly supportive of Israel that he’s getting his share of the pro-Israel [supporters], no one’s been more verbally pro-Israel than him. But no candidates get eliminated on that basis.”
Instead, Zeidman suggested, “The social issues are going to weigh in, and Jeb is far and away the most moderate. Marco Rubio is attracting a fair amount of attention, again because of the social issues. We’re seeing a lot more support for Jeb than the more conservative candidates. He’s a man who’s overwhelmingly won Florida, and done as much as a governor could do for the State of Israel. He’s not as expressive about it as George W. was, but I think his feeling for Israel is every bit as deep.”
Nevertheless, Bush has seen Jewish support drift away when he brought in James Baker, notoriously critical of Israel when secretary of state in George H.W. Bush’s administration. Baker compounded the suspicions within the RJC when he recently addressed J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group, prompting talk that Bush was now losing “the Sheldon Adelson primary,” referring to the most generous Republican donor, who is strongly supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.
Zeidman, who has also held leadership positions with the anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) said, “Well, I got to tell you, Jeb’s got something like 50 advisers. And who understands world politics better than Jim Baker? In retrospect, maybe he shouldn’t have done it. I’m not going to deny that. Or maybe he should have done it in a quieter way, not realizing the pushback from our community on Baker. Jeb’s refuted [Baker] within days and repeatedly since then. His statements, repeatedly pro-Israel, have shown that Jim Baker certainly isn’t going to influence him on Israel. I hope this isn’t going to come back and bite him. Why did Baker speak to J Street? I have no idea. But that was refuted too by Jeb.”
Zeidman told The Jewish Week, “I said from Day One, Jeb Bush is the adult in the room, with more experience that would serve him well as president of the United States than any of the other candidates.”
Phil Rosen, a lawyer with Weil, Gotshal, and a member of the RJC board, said, “So far, I’ve met with almost every one of the candidates, one on one, other than Kasich, Ben Carson, and Donald — whom I’ve known for a very long time so I didn’t feel I had to meet with him. I studied their records, their statements, and spoke to a large number of political mavens, and came to the conclusion that I wanted to support Marco Rubio.
“There are a lot of other good candidates who, in another year, and if Marco wasn’t running, I could have supported. I’ve previously given money to a good number of them, but Marco stands out. He can win the primaries and he can win the election, without shifting from one position to another, as some candidates are wont to do.”
Rosen’s No. 1 issue is Israel, “but Marco has Israel in his kishkes. He’s 43, hasn’t lived through the 1967 War experience or some of the transformative events, but he feels for our cause like we do.”
What is unique about Rubio as a candidate, said Rosen, is “Marco can win the general election. He has three constituencies in which Republicans have not done well in recent years: he appeals to young people, to women, and to Hispanics. Those constituencies are going to be crucial to winning the general election. And in the primaries, he has an appeal to conservatives and all parts of the Republican Party. His looks, his charm, his speaking ability … .”
Rosen has been watching Rubio “since his speech when he won his senate seat. I copied that speech and sent it out to my e-mail list. Then, in his first few months in office he gave a magnificent speech on Israel. I watched him very carefully, and stuck with him.”
Wiesenfeld added, “Rubio is very attractive, in terms of [thinking, speaking] on his feet. There’s a visceral appeal to pro-Israel Jews for [Mike] Huckabee and [Sen. Ted] Cruz. [George] Pataki has a warm spot in the hearts of many people, though I don’t know where that’s going. And while he’s not overly exciting, you can’t discount Jeb Bush because of all the money.
“It’s impossible to see where there’s any heavy trending. Until it narrows down, you can’t really tell. We couldn’t tell with seven candidates in 1976, how can we tell this early with 20?”