A network of Jewish Republicans, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson and veterans of President George W. Bush’s administration, is spearheading an effort to peel Jewish voters away from President Barack Obama.
The Republican Jewish Coalition has reported political expenditures of $6.3 million, four times higher than the $1.4 million the group spent in 2008, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Federal Election Commission.
Also, a separate group sharing the same address as a charitable foundation established by Ronald Lauder is registering U.S. voters living in Israel and has highlighted Obama’s disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lauder is the son of the founder of the Estee Lauder cosmetics company.
Criticism of Obama’s support for Israel is designed to woo some of the 78 percent of Jewish voters who exit polls said cast ballots for him in the 2008 election. A shift of a few percentage points toward Romney in some of the battleground states both sides say will determine the race, including Florida and Ohio, could mean victory for the Republican.
“Florida and Ohio are two crucial states in everybody’s calculation, and Jews have a significant presence in both of those states,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “In an election that everybody expects to be very close, suddenly 20,000 Jewish votes may actually be very important.”
’Danger’ for Israel
Ads financed by the Republican Jewish Coalition are running in Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Pennsylvania. One ad quotes a former Obama supporter who calls the president “disrespectful” toward Netanyahu and says the president, if re-elected, would “place Israel in a position where they’re in danger.”
“A shift in the Jewish vote in a number of these swing states could make the difference between Mitt Romney winning or losing,” said Matthew Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director who accompanied former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to Israel at the behest of the group registering Americans there.
Obama and Netanyahu have clashed over how to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon and on limiting Jewish settlements in areas Israel captured after the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East, including East Jerusalem.
Praise for Obama
Even so, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, told CNN in July that the Obama administration “is doing, in regard to our security, more than anything that I can remember in the past.” And the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said in September that Obama and congressional leaders “have deepened America’s support for Israel in difficult times.”
Jewish voters don’t consider Israel their No. 1 concern and are closer to the Democratic position on abortion rights, government help for the poor and other domestic issues, said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Responding to the push by the Jewish Republicans, Harris’s group sent out an e-mail from Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who is Jewish, saying he is “deeply troubled” about “inaccurate and sometimes inflammatory attacks” against “a proven friend of Israel.”
The council also distributed a video of actress-singer Barbra Streisand talking about Israel, abortion, gay rights and Medicaid. “Mitt Romney does not share our values,” she concludes. “I know Barack Obama does.”
Members of the Republican coalition board include Adelson, the chief executive officer of Las Vegas Sands Corp. who with his wife have given $20 million to a pro-Romney super-political action committee, FEC records show.
Crossroads GPS, founded with the help of Karl Rove, Bush’s former chief political adviser, gave the coalition $250,000, Internal Revenue Service filings show.
Brooks declined to say whether Adelson is directly funding the coalition ad campaign. Adelson, who owns a pro-Netanyahu newspaper in Israel and accompanied Romney on the candidate’s visit to Israel this summer, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Lauder, the cosmetics company heir, serves as president of the World Jewish Congress, an international organization that promotes the interests of Jewish people worldwide. His charitable foundation, unrelated to the World Jewish Congress, shares a New York address with the nonprofit group registering U.S. voters living in Israel.
That nonprofit, One Jerusalem Ltd., issued a statement in April 2010 highlighting a letter Lauder wrote as WJC president that asked Obama to “end our public feud with Israel and to confront the real challenges that we face together.”
The One Jerusalem statement said the Lauder letter showed “real anxiety in the Jewish community.” It was co-signed by its president, Allen Roth, who also serves as a Lauder aide.
In 2011, One Jerusalem changed its name to Americans for Jerusalem Ltd., according to filings with the Delaware Secretary of State’s office. Under the second name, it started the effort to register U.S. voters in Israel known as iVoteIsrael.
IVoteIsrael’s director, Elie Pieprz, a former Republican activist in the U.S., said the effort was nonpartisan. “All we are doing is helping people to vote, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re Democrats or Republicans,” he said.
Some 75,000 U.S. citizens in Israel have sent ballots, almost quadruple the 20,000 who voted absentee in 2008, in large part because of iVoteIsrael’s efforts, Pieprz said.
Calls and e-mails to Roth weren’t returned. Lauder was out of the country and wasn’t available for comment, according to Betty Ehrenberg, a spokeswoman for the World Jewish Congress.