Jewish Vote ‘Could Be Pivotal’ In Closely Watched Florida Races
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2018 Midterms

Jewish Vote ‘Could Be Pivotal’ In Closely Watched Florida Races

Tight gubernatorial and Senate contests come against backdrop of Pittsburgh, racially tinged ads.

Mayor Andrew Gillum (D-FL) at a candidate forum at Temple Kol Ami on October 25, 2018 in Plantation, Florida.  The forum was held to discuss issues in the Jewish community as the November 6 election approaches. Getty Images
Mayor Andrew Gillum (D-FL) at a candidate forum at Temple Kol Ami on October 25, 2018 in Plantation, Florida. The forum was held to discuss issues in the Jewish community as the November 6 election approaches. Getty Images

The belief by many Jews that President Donald Trump was insensitive in his response to the mass murders in a Pittsburgh synagogue last Shabbat may help galvanize Jewish voters in Florida to get out the vote for Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

That’s the belief of Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who told The Jewish Week that a poll of Jewish Democrats in early October found that 70 percent disapprove of Trump’s handling of anti-Semitism, a figure that she believes has likely increased after the synagogue murders.

“All signs indicate that that number is even higher in the aftermath of this event and a widespread recognition in the Jewish community that Donald Trump’s dangerous rhetoric — which has emboldened neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites — has contributed to this problem,” she said.

But Ronald Krongold, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he does not believe Trump — whose first comment to reporters after the shooting was that had the synagogue had an armed guard the “results would have been far better” — was insensitive.

President Donald Trump and Casey DeSantis listen to her husband Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speak during a campaign rally at the Hertz Arena on October 31, 2018 in Estero, Florida. Getty Images

“He has a Jewish son-in-law and daughter and Jewish grandchildren,” he said. “He certainly was sensitive to what happened in Pittsburgh. We should be concentrating on the anti-Semitic act. This is only one of a number of anti-Semitic acts that have occurred going back years. … Jews should be talking about anti-Semitism and not trying to win an election by beating up on President Trump.”

Ron Klein, chairman of the JDCA, said Trump has made himself an issue in the midterms because he has told Republican rallies, “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket because this is also a referendum on me.”

“In a close election like this, anything could happen,” Klein said. “We’re talking of a relatively small number of undecideds. … It could be a Jewish vote that is mad about Pittsburgh and the pipe bombs that were sent from here in Florida to [Jewish billionaire George] Soros and others. There is definitely a lot of anxiety in the Jewish community and whether that motivates them to come out and vote, we will see. We think it will.”

Polls for statewide races for governor and the U.S. Senate are so close that they are considered toss-ups by Real Clear Politics. With one week before Election Day, Democrat Andrew Gillum had a three-point lead over Republican Ron DeSantis in the gubernatorial race, and Democrat Bill Nelson was ahead of Rick Scott by just two points.

PLANTATION, FL (center- right) Mayor Andrew Gillum (D-FL) and (center – left) U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) at a candidate forum at Temple Kol Ami on October 25, 2018 in Plantation, Florida. The forum was held to discuss issues in the Jewish community as the November 6 election approaches. Getty Images

“Florida is so closely divided that a ‘blue wave’ by the Democrats would mean a win by only two or three points,” said Joshua Scacco, assistant professor in the communications department at the University of Florida.

“We have two known quantities in Scott [the current governor] and Nelson [the incumbent senator] and the polls have them deadlocked,” Scacco said. “For many we are no longer in the persuasion but mobilization part of the campaign. Republicans and Democrats are pretty evenly split in the state and [one week before Election Day] more Republicans than Democrats have voted. Early voting started here last week and so far more than three million votes have been cast, with 60,000 more Republicans voting than Democrats.”

Because both elections are so close, the Jewish vote “could be pivotal,” according to Kevin Wagner, a professor and chairman of the Political Science Department at Florida Atlantic University.

“That’s the reason both Gillum and DeSantis are aggressively supporting Israel and the reason DeSantis went to Israel for the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem,” Wagner said.

Gillum, the current mayor of Tallahassee, is being labeled by DeSantis as a “radical” who has “anti-Semites around him” due to his association with the Miami-based social justice organization the Dream Defenders.  One TV ad by the Republican Governors Association claims the Dream Defenders supports open borders and that its website calls police racists who have no place in society. And DeSantis has said the group compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to an “apartheid system.”

ESTERO, FL – OCTOBER 31: President Donald Trump listens as Florida Governor and Republican senate candidate Rick Scott speaks during a campaign rally at the Hertz Arena on October 31, 2018 in Estero, Florida. President Trump continues travelling across America to help get the vote out for Republican candidates running for office. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But Gillum has a whole section on his website devoted to his ties to Israel through an 11-year sister city partnership between Tallahassee and the Israeli city of Ramat HaSharon, and he has made several trips to Israel over the years.

“I don’t think there would be a candidate in Florida who would run on a statewide platform who would be anti-Israel,” said Wagner.

The gubernatorial election got off to a rocky start when DeSantis, in a Fox News interview immediately after his primary win, suggested that voters should not “monkey this up” by electing Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor.  He said later that his remark had “zero to do with race.” And Florida voters have twice been hit with racist robocalls from an Idaho-based white supremacist group.

“It’s difficult to know how widespread” the calls are, said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “We heard from a Jewish institution that it received a call, but is unclear how many people have received them. It is not a very expensive tactic to employ. … It’s possible some people realize it is not legitimate, but others might not. But the impact of picking up a phone and hearing somebody in a minstrel voice making racist and anti-Semitic comments is still a concern for those who receive it.”

Those receiving the call hear jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises in the background as a man says: “Well, hello there! I is the Negro, Andrew Gillum, and I be askin’ you to make me governor of this here state of Florida.” At one point, the speaker claims “it was the Jews who owned the slave trade” and that Jews will be “puttin’ Negroes in charge over the white folks.”

The call concludes: “All the Jews gon’ vote me, Andrew Gillum, governor of this here state of Florida.”

ORLANDO, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 31: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) campaigns at the Orlando Science Center on October 31, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. Nelson faces Republican challenger and current governor of Florida Rick Scott in the upcoming midterm election. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

DeSantis denounced the calls, saying through a spokesman: “This is absolutely appalling and disgusting — and hopefully whoever is behind this has to answer for this despicable action.” 

Segal said this is “just one of many tactics in which technology is used to spread and promote hatred at a time where there is divisive political discourse and hate is in the news every day. This underscores this moment in which we are living.”

He added that similar racist calls have been used in other parts of the country to support candidates who hold anti-Semitic views.

“The goals of the calls are to create fear and anxiety in those communities by leveraging political campaigns or news events to spread anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry,” Segal added.

Susan MacManus, professor emeritus in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida, said she received one of the robocalls and quickly hung up “thinking it was a joke. I think every media got one [of the calls].”

Soifer said the JDCA has endorsed 58 senatorial and congressional candidates in the midterm election but that it is “investing more heavily in Florida than anywhere else in the country. We are buying digital and print ads. We know that people under the age of 65 spend two hours a day on their phones on average, so we are contacting people where they get their information. And we have coupled that with print ads in Jewish newspapers, including election supplements.”

She noted that a national poll of 800 Jewish voters taken earlier this month by the JDCA’s Jewish Electorate Institute found that 74 percent of them were supporting Democratic candidates and that 68 percent of those identify as Democrats. That means that the other 6 percent, Soifer said, are either Republicans or independents “because of the overwhelming rejection of Trump’s policies in the Jewish community.”

ORLANDO, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 31: Andrew Gillum supporters attend a Get Out the Vote Rally at the University of Central Florida, CFE Arena on October 31 2018 in Orlando, Florida. Bernie Sanders was attending the rally to boost support for the Democrats on the same day as President Trump attending a rally in South Florida with Ron DeSantis. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

MacManus agreed that the “Jewish vote in Florida is still solidly Democratic. There have been some inroads, but Gillum will get the Jewish vote. The Jewish mayor of Miami Beach is totally in support of Gillum, and several rabbis have come out for him. … The older you are, the more you vote a straight ticket.”

One issue DeSantis has raised is “how Gillum is going to pay for all the things he wants to do, like Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, and a $50,000 minimum salary for teachers,” MacManus said.

But Barney Loiter, 77, of Boca Raton, said he is voting for Gillum because “I like the way he communicates and his focus on the issues. He is also attacking the Republican rationale for how they do things.”
Asked about Israel, Loiter said he is concerned that “as more progressives get into the mainstream of the Democratic Party it will become an issue – but I have not been able to grapple with that yet. … The Republicans do better on Israel, but it is not a litmus test for me. A lot of my support for the Democratic Party is party-oriented as opposed to specifics about the individuals.”

Audrey Atlas, 84, of Boca Raton, said she will be voting a straight Republican ticket.

“The economy is wonderful, the unemployment rate is fabulous, the administration has eased restrictions on businesses and has created an atmosphere of confidence going forward,” she said. “I have not seen anything like this in this country in many, many years.”

Similarly, Lee Fogel, 90, also of Boca Raton, said he plans to vote for DeSantis because “he seems straight forward as opposed to the mayor of a town that is plagued by crime. They had more killings there [Tallahassee] than ever, and if he [Gillum] can’t control his city, how is he going to control the state?”

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