Future of Orthodox Jewish Vote Has Implications for GOP; Small but Growing Group Receptive to Republican Ideas
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006; A06
Republicans are hoping a strong defense of Israel translates into greater support among Jewish voters this fall, but the biggest political benefits are likely to come long after the 2006 campaign concludes, according to political and demographic experts studying Jewish voting trends.
The Jewish group proving most receptive to Republican overtures over the past decade is among the smallest: Orthodox Jews. Right now, they account for roughly 10 percent of the estimated 5.3 million Jews in the United States, hardly enough to tip most elections.
This is likely to change significantly in the years ahead because Orthodox Jews are the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish population, raising the possibility that one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs will be increasingly in play in future elections, according to surveys of Jewish voting and religious and social habits.
“The likelihood is there will be a very quick jump in the number of orthodox as the baby boomers age and die,” said David A. Harris of the American Jewish Committee, a nonpartisan organization that conducts an annual survey of Jews. “They will be increasingly replaced by Orthodox children who are more” in line with Republicans.
This unfolding transformation of the Jewish community is coloring the debate over the latest Middle East conflict, Republican and Democratic lawmakers said. Both parties are emphasizing their commitment to Israel and looking for opportunities to portray the opposition as insufficiently supportive.
Some Democrats, for instance, called on GOP leaders to prevent Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from addressing the joint session of Congress last week because he differs with U.S. policy on Israel, a stance praised by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) called the Democratic effort “an attack on what I believe is the growing sentiment among the Jewish community that Republicans have really been there” for Israel.
Only those races in states with large Jewish populations are affected in particularly visible ways by the fight for the Orthodox Jewish vote. In the New Jersey U.S. Senate race, for instance, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations is providing the Democratic and Republican candidates a forum before rabbis and other leaders that could help sway the close election. Republican Tom Kean Jr. appeared before the group last week; his opponent, Sen. Robert Menendez (D), is scheduled to appear this month. There are 485,00 Jews in New Jersey, and polls suggest the contest is a tossup.
But elsewhere, the competition for Jewish support is playing out in some less visible but surprising ways.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a conservative Roman Catholic, is also looking for a boost from the Jewish vote in his uphill campaign for reelection. Trailing in the polls, Santorum has seized on the explosion of Middle East violence to emphasize years of support for Israel and many of the state’s 280,000 Jews, who live mostly in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
He recently brought state Jewish leaders to a series of private meetings in Washington with top Republicans, including presidential national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. He blasted his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., for failing to speak out forcefully enough in defense of Israel. “At a critical time in the America-Israel relationship, when you are a candidate for one of the hottest Senate races in the country, you have an obligation to step up and speak into this moment,” Santorum said in an interview. Instead, he said, Casey shows “weakness.”
A number of Jewish donors, especially those in the Orthodox community, are assisting Santorum and others behind the scenes. In the short term, the biggest political benefit of the GOP’s outreach to the Jewish community has been financial, Democratic and Republican officials said.
Gary Erlbaum, owner of Greentree Properties in Ardmore, Pa., and other Jewish fundraisers have helped raise well over $1 million for Santorum and rally support for him in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. “If he could get a majority of Jewish voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, he would win the election, but there is nothing assured about that,” said Erlbaum, who is raising money for some Democratic candidates, also. Erlbaum is major backer of the Orthodox community in his state.
“In conversations with friends of mine who tilt to the left . . . Rick Santorum could be the No. 1 savior of Israel and they would not vote for him,” he said. However, he added, “I think generally speaking, the Orthodox community is more supportive.”
But it might take years for Republicans to benefit in elections.
Researchers commissioned by the American Jewish Committee found that the group most receptive to the GOP message is Orthodox Jews. They are much more likely to base their political decisions on a candidate’s view on Israel than other Jews, researchers have found.
The number of Jewish adults between 18 and 29 who describe themselves as Orthodox is 16 percent, nearly double those ages 30 to 39, the AJC-commissioned study found. The percentages are believed to be even higher among Jews under the age of 18, who account for about 20 percent of the overall Jewish population, according to Nathan Diament, director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. These Jews, who regularly attend synagogue and tend to be conservative on social issues, are also having children at a higher rate than other Jews, Harris said.
In many ways, their views are in sync with those of Christians who attend church regularly, which is one of the most reliable indicators of how a person votes in politics today. The more frequently a person attends church or synagogue, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican, polls show.
“Suddenly the Jewish landscape, based on current trends, will look very different,” Harris said. “That has implications for voting patterns [and] party affiliation.”
Democrats agree Republicans under President Bush are making inroads among Orthodox Jews. “Absolutely it is problematic,” said Ira Foreman, of the National Democratic Jewish Council. “But I would much rather be where we are.” Foreman and others said Republican efforts to shake overall Jewish allegiance to Democrats have largely failed because of domestic issues such as abortion rights and concerns about the blending of religious and government activities.
“If you [as a candidate] are not a very strong supporter of Israel, you are disqualified” from getting much, if any, of the Jewish vote, said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist. “Once you reach that threshold, for the vast majority of the Jewish community, it switches to domestic issues on which Republicans routinely get killed.”
Bush has made small gains among Jews since his first election, but short of what some GOP strategists had envisioned. A staunch supporter of Israel who won the backing of a few prominent Democratic Jews such as former New York City mayor Ed Koch, Bush captured between 22 and 26 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, based on various exit polling surveys. In 2000, he won 19 percent.
Because there are only about a half-million Orthodox Jews, it is virtually impossible for pollsters to collect a large enough sample to determine their precise voting patterns. But several who have studied the issue estimate that Bush won a strong majority of Orthodox Jewish votes in 2004, a reversal from 2000 when Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew, was running on the national Democratic ticket.
One trend Democrats and Republicans agree on is that older Jews are voting almost 9 to 1 for Democrats and are unlikely to change their views.
“The single most hostile [Jewish] community to Republicans is the 70-and-older community,” said Matthew Brooks, of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “That segment will not be part of the electorate going forward much longer.”
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