By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006
Nearly five years ago, immediately after the Sept.11, 2001, attacks, Republican strategists identified what they hoped would be a powerful new engine of support. "September 12 Republicans" were Jewish Democrats and independents who would switch their allegiance because of their concern over national security and their appreciation of President Bush's stalwart support of Israel.
It is such people that Vice President Cheney will be courting tomorrow, when he speaks to the closing plenary session of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy conference. But the much-trumpeted effort by the Bush White House to make deep inroads on the Democrats' historic claims on Jewish voters -- and, even more important politically, the campaign contributions of Jewish donors -- has not materialized in any convincing fashion, according to poll data, fundraisers and campaign finance reports.
In 2004, Bush improved his 2000 performance among Jewish voters, jumping from 19 percent to 25 percent, according to exit polls. But this gain was disappointing to many Bush supporters -- and was substantially below the 35 percent level Republican presidential candidates averaged through the five elections of the 1970s and 1980s.
Recently, two new obstacles are hurting GOP efforts at cultivating Jews: the corruption scandals involving former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and his onetime friend and benefactor, Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff, an orthodox Jew, had asserted he was playing a key role in the drive to recruit Jewish donors to the Republican cause. But some Republicans now consider the disgraced lobbyist an albatross shadowing this effort.
Bruce Bialosky, a leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition's branch in Southern California, told the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, that Abramoff is "a blight upon the Republican Party and the Jewish people."
Other officials with the RJC, based in Washington, contended that Abramoff never played an important role in Republican fundraising among Jews. They declined to comment on Abramoff for the record.
DeLay's problems, likewise, have set back GOP efforts in cultivating Jewish supporters. He has been one of Congress's most aggressive and outspoken backers of Israel's Likud government, and sponsored resolutions of support that were often so strongly worded that some Democrats -- including those who had supported Israel's Labor Party -- abstained or voted no. Republicans cited these votes in arguing that the Democratic Party could not be counted as a reliable ally of the Jewish state.
In 2003, DeLay told the Israeli Knesset that the tie between the United States and Israel "is the solidarity of Moses and Lincoln. . . . And in its name I come to you -- in the midst of a great global conflict against evil -- with a simple message: Be not afraid."
DeLay's resignation from his leadership post, forced by an indictment on fundraising charges by a Texas grand jury, has left him with marginal influence as he struggles to keep his congressional seat -- hardly in a position to contribute to GOP party-building.
The White House's expectations that it could compete among an influential demographic group had been stoked by what political strategists believed would be an outpouring of support for a president who demonstrated unwavering support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and repeatedly stated a determination to defeat anti-Semitic Islamic terrorists.
At the start of 2004, Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, had raised the possibility of Republican Jewish support reaching 35 percent to 40 percent, citing exit polls from the 2002 House and Senate races.
"It is now undeniable that there is a major shift taking place among Jewish voters. At this point, the question isn't will more Jews support the president, but rather, how many more will do so?" Brooks declared in January 2004.
Bush's level of support -- 25 percent -- among Jewish voters in November 2004 was far less than that received by Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and by George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election.
Even so, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said the strong loyalty of the Depression-era generation of Jewish voters to Democrats is eroding.
"We have had two presidents, Ronald Reagan and this president, who have addressed anti-Semitism in the world and threats in the world to both America and to Israel with moral clarity," he said. Still, he acknowledged, "we have a lot of work to do."
The 1992 election marked a low point for Jewish support of a Republican presidential candidate, when George H.W. Bush won just 11 percent of that vote.
The senior Bush lost ground when, upset about Israeli settlement policies, he tried to delay $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel. He then complained about the strength of Jewish lobbyists, charging that they had "a thousand lobbyists on the Hill. . . . We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it."
The opposition grew when an alleged remark by Bush's secretary of state, James A. Baker III -- profanely dismissing the concerns of Jews since "they didn't vote for us anyway" -- drew publicity.
The younger Bush's effort to court Jewish support has political implications beyond votes. Some Republican strategists were convinced they could financially cripple the Democratic Party, which depends heavily on contributions from Jewish donors.
There is little evidence this has happened. Brooks and other Republicans can cite only two examples -- Ameriquest Chairman Roland E. Arnall, who became a major Bush supporter, and Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, who gave $100,000 to the RNC -- of high-profile donors who have traditionally given mostly to Democrats.
They also cite one rising star. Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), the chief deputy whip and the only Jewish Republican in the House, has taken an increasingly visible role in speaking for the GOP before Jewish groups.