As the Tea Party wave sweeps across the nation’s political waters, Jewish Republicans are increasingly worried that the movement could wash away their hopes of winning over Jewish voters — even as leaders of the insurgency talk about expanded outreach to minorities, including Jews.
“The idea of the Tea Parties scares the hell out of the Jewish community, and I can’t tell you it’s unjustifiable in some cases,” said Fred Zeidman, a longtime Jewish Republican leader in Texas. “There are some candidates out there that are clearly unqualified; whether or not that hurts us, we just don’t know.”
So unqualified that the Republican Jewish Coalition, the central address for Jewish GOP activists, will not support some high-profile Republican candidates with Tea Party connections, starting with Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell.
Republican sources insist the problem is one of perception and media spin focusing on a handful of candidates with less-than-stellar credentials and a penchant for sometimes outrageous statements.
Jewish Democrats disagree. By eagerly seeking to exploit a movement that has shown surprising strength at the polls, the Republicans are tilting the party in a direction even many Jewish conservatives will see as threatening, they argue.
“The Tea Party movement gives a public face to the fact that all moderation has been driven out of the Republican Party of today,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). “Inevitably, that just further drives away Jewish support.”
But predictions are risky in today’s highly charged political environment.
“So much of this will depend on which face of the Tea Party movement emerges as dominant,” said University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald. “It’s an amazingly diverse and decentralized movement at this stage. We don’t know what it will look like in six months.”
Ryan Hecker, for one, believes the Tea Party movement has room in its tent for Jews. Hecker is a Houston lawyer and the godfather of the “Contract From America,” a Tea Party manifesto that is exerting a gravitational pull on this year’s congressional contests.
And he’s Jewish.
Hecker, once a campaign staffer for former New York Mayor and GOP presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani, said Jewish voters should have no problems with the Tea Party phenomenon.
“I’m from New York — we elected Rudy Giuliani twice with huge backing from the Jewish community,” Hecker told The Jewish Week. “The reason is that he appealed to the idea that spending was out of control in New York, corruption was out of control, and that we needed to cut back and government needs to be more transparent.”
That’s the focus of the Tea Party movement, he said, not the social values agenda of the religious right faction of the GOP, a traditional choke point for Jewish voters.
Recent news reports suggest Tea Party leaders are planning active outreach to minorities, including Hispanics, African-Americans and Jews.
Hecker downplayed that idea.
“It’s good to reach out to everyone, regardless of race or religion, but at the end of the day it’s about ideas,” he said. “Personally, I think our focus needs to remain on promoting our ideas and getting away from the feeling you need to reach out just so you can say you have people. The real issue isn’t how diverse you are, but what you stand for.”
Yet Hecker conceded that even if it’s judged on the ideas it promotes and not some of its more controversial candidates, the Tea Party movement faces an uphill fight for Jewish support.
Jews remain strongly Democratic, he said, “and it’s hard to convince people to change. But we also see that across the spectrum, people — including a lot of Jews — are upset with the lobbyist power in Washington. That’s where we can reach out.”
Adding to the difficulty of Jewish outreach are the intemperate, sometimes incomprehensible statements of some Tea Party candidates and historic associations with angry populist movements that in the past have often turned against the Jews.
Jews tend to be “rational, policy-oriented voters,” said Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel, “and the Tea Party candidates generally do not fit into that category. It’s very clear Jews don’t go for anti-intellectual politics, which is what we’re seeing in a lot of states.”
On Israel, some Tea Party candidates have made strong statements of support, and there’s little evidence of hostility to the Jewish state in the emerging movement.
But the Tea Parties are overwhelmingly domestic in focus, with hints of traditional American isolationism — not surprising in a nation that’s been at war for the past nine years. Opposition to all foreign aid is a strong undercurrent in some campaigns, most notably the Senate campaign of GOP nominee Rand Paul in Kentucky.
More importantly, Jews are likely to be turned off by the many connections between Tea Party elements and old-line extremist groups.
The Anti-Defamation League has warned about “white supremacist infiltration of the right-wing Tea Party events” and protested extremist signs at Tea Party rallies. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported on a growing confluence of Tea Parties and radical anti-government “militias” and a toxic mixture of gay bashing and “nativism” in some Tea Party quarters.
“Any movement that is unstructured and undisciplined, without a political tradition, becomes a magnet for people with all kinds of views, and can go all over the place” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. “So there’s a concern, and we continue to watch it closely.”
But Foxman also gave Tea Party leaders credit for limiting extremist outburst at movement events. “There are indications they have acted responsibly” after the initial criticism by the ADL and other groups, he said.
Those concerns — whether accurate or exaggerated by a press eager to describe the Tea Parties in sensational terms — make effective outreach to minority voters unlikely, many political scientists agree.
“That kind of outreach is very hard when there’s no recognized authority,” said University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald. “In highly decentralized movements, all the progress they make in one place can be undone by a single individual making inflammatory statements.”
“I see very little chance that any substantial minority vote of any minority will defect to the Tea Party,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Will there be a handful of minorities here and there? Sure. So what? It may help the Tea Party image but that’s about it.”
The factors limiting minority outreach also pose a potential problem for a Republican Party that has made small, uneven inroads into the Jewish vote in recent years.
A number of “establishment” GOP incumbents and contenders were beaten by Tea Party insurgents in primaries this year. Some of those new faces — Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Senate race, Mike Lee in Utah, Joe Miller in Alaska, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin (running against Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat) and Rand Paul in Kentucky — could become the new face of the Republican Party.
Then there’s New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, who has garnered significant Tea Party support.
A new Sienna College poll shows Democratic nominee New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo with a huge lead among Jewish voters in a race in which some experts predicted a move of disaffected Democrats to the GOP column (see story on page 1).
Moreover, the poll revealed an unusual degree of certainty among the Jews supporting Cuomo — another possible indication of the Jewish Tea Party backlash.
If the Tea Party continues to advance as a force in the GOP, “even many Jews who have moved in the direction of the Republicans will shift back to the Democrats,” said Colby College’s Maisel.
“When I worked on reaching out to Jews in Florida during the 2008 [Obama] campaign, the single most effective communications strategy we had was talking to people about Sarah Palin,” said Mik Moore, public policy director for the Jewish Funds for Justice (and a Jewish Week board member). “She represented everything Jewish voters don’t like in terms of her qualifications for the job, her anti-intellectualism, her railing against ‘coastal elites’ as not being real Americans. And she is now widely seen as one of the leaders of the Tea Party.”
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a Jewish Week interview that he admitted concern and confusion about the seething forces affecting Republican politics.
“This is all happening in real time; we’re all trying to understand this phenomenon as we go along.”
But in the end, he said, Democrats who are “using this as a wedge issue to scare folks” will fail.
“Even in the Jewish community, there’s a lot of angst out there about the unbelievable explosion of the debt and the deficit, about how we’re mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.”
While conceding that some Tea Party Republicans will get little Jewish support, he denied that that the insurgent movement will cut into Jewish Republican votes except in a few instances — including the Delaware and Kentucky Senate races where the RJC has taken the unusual step of refusing to endorse Tea Party-affiliated GOP nominees who he said are “clearly out of the mainstream.”
But other GOP contenders, including Florida Republican gubernatorial nominee Marco Rubio, will “do very well with Jewish voters.”
Other Jewish Republicans say that in the long term, the Tea Party trend could help Jewish GOP outreach by diminishing the clout of the party’s Christian conservatives, traditionally a factor causing some Jewish voters to balk, and emphasizing the economic and fiscal issues.
Still, there’s an easily detectable current of unease running through the GOP establishment as the party tries to ride the political bucking bronco without getting thrown to the ground.
“Is there a chance Jewish voters will go out of their way to support Tea Party candidates? Not a chance in the world,” said GOP Jewish activist Fred Zeidman. “But I hope they will look at the individual races, at the opponents, and make decisions based on the issues. But it is a concern.”