A clash is emerging between pro-Israel political action committees over whether to give campaign donations based on support for the Jewish state or on other issues, including global warming and abortion rights, that often appeal to Jewish voters.
The biggest Jewish-centric PAC, Norpac, is doling out money the old-fashioned way, based primarily on an incumbent’s record on the Israel question; the No. 2 PAC in terms of donations to candidates, J Street, and others are using new criteria.
The shift in donations to challengers amounts to an 11 percent change in 2012 compared with 5 percent in 2010 and the highest percentage since 2000. In raw numbers, it represents the most money since the center started keeping records.
“They’re making a judgment using a calculus that’s different than historically the pro-Israel money folks would have used,” said Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. “The historical behavior is if you voted right, according to a set of guidelines, then you continued to get support. Jews felt you can’t run away from friends.”
Among the races where the division is playing out is a U.S. House contest in Syracuse, New York. J Street contributed $2,500 to Democratic challenger Dan Maffei, trying to reclaim the congressional seat he lost to Republican Representative Anne Marie Buerkle in 2010.
J Street cited Maffei’s support for a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish, democratic Israel.
The group’s spokeswoman, Jessica Rosenblum, said Jewish donors also look at other issues, including the environment and the House budget plan sponsored by Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman. The measure reduces the top tax rate, cuts spending on social programs, and replaces traditional Medicare with vouchers to buy private insurance or a government plan with a cap on expenditures. Maffei opposes the legislation, according to his campaign website.
“We’re beyond the, ‘Yes or no? Do we support the state of Israel?”’ said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street. “Everybody really does. As long as you meet that basic threshold, then you move on to other issues.”
Norpac, which is based in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, gave $2,500 to Buerkle and took out an ad in the district’s Jewish newspaper in which president Ben Chouake praised her “extraordinary work and leadership on U.S.-Israel relations.” He cited Buerkle’s positions as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and as the House Republican member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.
New Mexico Senate
U.S. Representative Martin Heinrich, the Democratic nominee for the open New Mexico Senate seat, voted against the Ryan budget. Like Maffei, he backed legislation aimed at curbing global warming. Heinrich also received $5,238 from the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a Highland Park, Illinois-based group that supports candidates backing both Israel and abortion rights, and $2,000 from the Los Angeles-based Citizens Organized PAC.
“Those are the things that are really going to determine the Jewish vote,” Ben-Ami said.
In the same New Mexico race, Washington PAC contributed $1,000 to Heinrich’s Republican opponent, former New Mexico Representative Heather Wilson.
“We’ve always been bipartisan,” said Morris Amitay, the PAC’s founder. “We give to both parties based strictly on their records on Israel-related subjects.”
The groups are divided in Florida, as well.
Washington PAC and Citizens Organized each gave $1,000 to Representative Allen West, a Florida Republican who co-sponsored legislation supporting Israel’s right to annex the West Bank if Palestinians seek United Nations recognition. West, an anti-tax Tea Party favorite, is seeking a second term in the House.
J Street, meanwhile, hosted West’s Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy, at a reception during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and contributed $5,000. Murphy also received $2,500 from the Joint Action Committee.
In the Massachusetts Senate race, Washington PAC donated $1,000 to Senator Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent, while the Joint Action Committee gave $4,738 to Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University law professor and former adviser to Obama who helped set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the 2010 financial regulation law.
In Ohio, PACs are divided over what it means to be pro-Israel.
Brown Senate Seat
J Street contributed $2,200 to Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown; National PAC, based in Washington, gave him $5,000; and the Joint Action Committee donated $7,238.
Meanwhile, Norpac sent $2,000 to state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Jewish Republican challenging Brown, and Washington PAC gave him $1,000.
Washington PAC’s Amitay said Brown, unlike more than 70 of his colleagues, didn’t sign letters urging President Barack Obama to press Arab states to normalize relations with Israel and asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds that tie the United States and Israel together” following U.S. criticism in 2010 of Israeli plans to build in East Jerusalem.
“We have an incumbent with a bad record against a challenger with excellent statements,” said Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which isn’t a PAC and doesn’t make campaign contributions.
J Street’s political affairs director, Daniel Kalik, said signing letters isn’t the only way to support Israel.
“Pro-Israel doesn’t just mean supporting every decision by the current Israeli government,” Kalik said. “Israel’s future is dependent on reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Candidates who advocate for that position are the most pro-Israel candidates.”