Republican presidential hopefuls make their pitch to GOP Jews

Donald Trump speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington, D.C., Dec. 3, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In carefully tailored stump speeches that ranged in tone from apocalyptic to chummy, all but one of the Republican presidential candidates showed up in an attempt to woo Jewish voters.

Many of the speeches at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum, held Dec. 3 at the Ronald Reagan Building downtown, focused on the threat of “radical Islamic terror,” emphasized their disapproval for the recently negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, and took direct aim at Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

For decades, the Republican Jewish Coalition has had as its mission bridging the divide between a conservative party and a moderate constituency, U.S. Jews. Since the late 1990s, when casino magnate Sheldon Adelson became the group’s most generous funder, it has taken on his passions — for instance, embracing a hawkish pro-Israel stance.

The daylong forum began with a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting that killed 14 a day earlier in San Bernardino, California, and prayers for the survivors and those who had lost loved ones. The killings are thought to have been carried out by a husband-and-wife pair inspired by the so-called Islamic State.

The massacre “underscores we are at a time of war,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the first candidate to address the crowd. “This nation needs a wartime president to defend it.”

When it came time for Donald Trump to speak, the real estate mogul turned Republican front-runner, who has long traded in conspiracy theories about Obama, told the crowd: “We have a president who refuses to use the term” — referring to “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump then added, “There’s something about him we don’t know about.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said, “This president and his former secretary of state cannot call it what it is: Islamic terrorism,” referencing Clinton, who preceded Kerry as America’s top diplomat. “[Islamic terrorists] have declared war on us and we need to declare war on them.”

Among the candidates to take the stage, only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a point to distinguish between mainstream Muslim-Americans and radical jihadists, noting his own pushback when one of his appointed judges was falsely accused of practicing traditional Islamic religious, or shariah, law.

At times throughout the day, the candidates seemed to be competing over who was closest with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and which had spent more time in Israel. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, said he had visited the Jewish state “dozens of times since 1973.

Many pledged to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on “day one” of their presidency.

Trump, however, balked in response to a question about Jerusalem — united in Israeli hands or divided between Israelis and Palestinians — saying he would wait to decide until he spoke with Netanyahu. The crowd booed its disapproval. He then tried to win back the audience by telling them about how he made a commercial for Netanyahu’s re-election campaign. (Trump also made a point of reminding the room that his daughter Ivanka is Jewish; she converted before marrying real estate developer Jared Kushner.)

But Trump also seemed to acknowledge that he wasn’t likely to be popular among Jewish Republicans, telling the crowd, “You aren’t going to support me even though you know I’m the best thing that will ever happen for Israel. You aren’t going to support me because I don’t want your money.”

One common refrain during the event was the rejection of the deal that the Obama administration, together with other world powers, struck with Iran over its nuclear program.

Trump, for one, said he would send everyone back to the negotiating table, assuring the room that inking a better deal would be “so easy.” Bush said he would reinstitute sanctions against Iran lifted as part of the deal. And Cruz declared, “We need to nominate a candidate who has the clarity to stand up and say: If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you are voting for the Ayatollah Khamenei to have nuclear weapons,” referring to Iran’s supreme leader. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida vowed to “shred” the agreement.

And there was also a near-universal declaration of revulsion for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. Cruz indicated that as president, his administration would strip federal funding from universities that divest from companies that do business with Israel. Rubio blasted the new European Union resolution to label products made in the West Bank settlements, saying that the policy was tantamount to anti-Semitism. He also promised to “call on university and religious leaders to speak out with clarity and force on this issue the same way … they speak out against racism and bigotry.”

The room generally received the candidates warmly, but their votes may be few: Jewish voters consistently skew Democratic. Obama won the 2012 presidential election with about 70 percent of the Jewish vote, and Jews overwhelmingly support social issues that fall in the progressive column, including gay marriage and abortion rights.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, made some headway over the 2008 GOP choice, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Romney garnered about 30 percent of the Jewish vote to McCain’s 22-24 percent, corresponding to sagging enthusiasm among voters generally for Obama. Additionally, McCain’s vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is believed to have turned off many Jewish voters because of her stridency on social issues.

On a call with the media the day before the forum, National Jewish Democratic Council Chairman Greg Rosenbaum said, “[W]hen we look at the candidates this party is putting forward, we’re amazed by how out of sync they are with the priorities of Jewish-Americans. The RJC attempts to drive a wedge between the parties on Israel, using Israel as a partisan issue, because it is all they’ve got.”

Only Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tried to address that lag, noting a successful Republican candidate had to rethink immigration policy, reach out to Latinos, and allow for exceptions on rape and incest with regard to abortion.

Each of the speeches had moments of direct Jewish appeal, sometimes to mixed effect.

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore warmed up the crowd by noting that just the night before he had watched the Oscar-winning Holocaust feature “Schindler’s List.” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he always followed his mother’s advice.

“She said, ‘Johnny, if you want to look for a really good friend, get someone who is Jewish,'” Kasich recalled. “You know why she said that? Your Jewish friend will stick by your side and stand by your side.”

Trump was introduced as a “mensch” with “chutzpah.”

“This room negotiates deals, perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to,” he said.

Not all of the effort was well received: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon running for the nomination, spent his time on stage woodenly reading from “Ally,” a book written by Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren. Then, in the same monotone, he read his own prepared remarks, several times mispronouncing Hamas — it sounded more like hummus.

Other candidates to speak were former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul missed the event, citing Senate votes.

As raucous as the crowd was at times, it may not be about votes at all but about dollars.

“I am a fiscal conservative,” said Richard Fox, a venture capitalist from Haddonfield, New Jersey, who listed Israel as a top voting priority. “Oddly I thought that Cruz lit the crowd up on fire. But Rubio was a little flatter today.  I haven’t decided.”

The real money will come from another reportedly undecided voter: Adelson, who was traveling overseas and not in attendance. He is rumored to still be considering which candidate to support for 2016.

Adelson, the RJC’s main bankroller, helped sustain the 2012 campaign of former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich — backing the mogul now believes wounded Romney in the general election.