In striking a more libertarian tone than in previous years, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference might be taking the constituency represented by American Conservative Union down a path that is alienating to some in the Jewish community.
According to some observers, the conference’s apparent toning down this year of foreign policy concerns certainly played to the base of Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who won the March 6-8 gathering’s straw poll of presidential contenders but could prove a liability in the effort to win over moderate Jewish voters for the Republican Party.
“The most important thing is to find a candidate who speaks to all these people,” said Eric Rappaport, director of PolicyHill.com. “I think a lot of Jews are Reagan Democrats who are more centrist, and what the Republicans really need instead of rhetoric is someone who can garner those votes and bring them into the fold.”
Though Jews make up a small minority of CPAC attendees, their number in recent years has been increasing. This year, the invocation at the beginning of the conference at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor near Washington, D.C., was given by an Orthodox rabbi.
“Everybody knows him here,” David Keene, former CPAC chairman and current opinion editor at The Washington Times, said of the choice to have Rabbi Chaim “Nate” Segal of Staten Island, N.Y., deliver the invocation. “Rabbi Segal is our rabbi.”
Keene also mentioned how recent elections show a growing number of Jews voting Republican.
“The Jewish vote has begun to shift, but it’s mostly younger people because that’s who you have to get [to change voting trends],” he argued. “You either have to get younger people, or there has to be some cataclysmic event.”
Whereas in previous presidential election years, the Jewish Republican vote at the top of the ticket hovered in the 20 percent range, exit polling data in 2012 indicated that upward of 30 percent of Jewish voters chose Republican nominee Mitt Romney for president. Historic highs in the GOP’s share of the Jewish vote came in the 1956 re-election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 1988 election of then-Vice President George Bush.
Because CPAC always runs Thursday through Saturday, attending each conference has traditionally been difficult for observant Jews. In 2012, the Young Jewish Conservatives began hosting a Shabbaton at or near the conference so that religious Jews could attend sessions in between prayers and meals. This year’s Shabbaton drew about 120 attendees, who were addressed by former GOP presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), former Rep. Allen West of Florida and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.); each in their own way expressed their support for Israel.
Though Franks received the greatest response from Shabbaton attendees, Santorum came in a close second, delivering a thinly veiled attack at the conference’s prevailing message of isolationist foreign policy.
But among attendees of the general CPAC conference, the momentum undoubtedly belonged to Paul and his brand of libertarianism, which, until this year, has not seriously threatened the loyalty of the GOP elite on the boards of organizations such as the ACU that project a mainstream mix of conservative fiscal and social policies.
Paul’s speech was the best attended and best received by attendees — especially among college students — than any during the entire conference, including a keynote address by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who read from a Dr. Seuss book to rail against Democrats.
Key points in Paul’s address focused on the ideals of liberty and freedom, referencing National Security Agency wire-tapping programs to military drone strikes, an issue on which he conducted a filibuster on the Senate floor last year.
“Will we sit idly by and let our rights be trampled on?” he asked. “Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace, or will we stand like men and women of character and say, ‘We are free, and no man, no matter how well intentioned, will take our freedom from us?’ “
Among Jewish attendees backing Paul was Joseph Strauss, 24.
“I think that his message is the most refined message that traditionally isn’t reached by the Republican Party,” said Strauss, a consultant and native of Washington, D.C., who spends half the year in West Virginia. “I think it’s the most expansive message of liberty and freedom. I think that that’s attractive to everyone, and I think that the outreach would provide for a larger voter base than we normally have access to.”
Strauss said that although Paul raised eyebrows in September by apparently suggesting in an interview that hawkish Republicans were backing military action because of concern for Israel and the Jewish people, he could tolerate the senator’s isolationist approach. In Strauss’ view, presidential intervention in conflicts around the globe has only led to mistakes.
“I’ve watched president after president — whether on the right or the left — stumble in foreign policy,” he said. “They’re always supposed to be these experts, and they hire all these academia types and consistently they underperform.”
Rabbi Yitzhok Tendler, co-founder of the Young Jewish Conservatives, acknowledged a divide in the part of the Jewish community that hews close to conservative politics, saying that those who tend to identify as Zionist side more with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who finished a distant second in last weekend’s straw poll — but that Paul appeals to the younger generation.
“Young people in general identify with those [libertarian] ideas and typically identify with people who express their beliefs in an articulate and unambiguous fashion” said Tendler. “Though the more strongly Zionist young Jews identify, the more likely they will have questions about Rand Paul’s foreign policy.”