LAS VEGAS — The GOP Jewish faithful descended in force on Sin City, turning out in record numbers and striking a feisty, combative tone at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference.
According to organizers, some 400 people attended the gathering, where they were feted with poker and golf tournaments and wooed by presidential hopefuls.
“In Jewish crowds, I’m tired of keeping my political views quiet,” said Barry Sobel, an asset manager from College Park, Ga. “It’s nice to be in a room of like-minded people.”
Jewish Republicans make up a distinct minority of American Jewry — President Obama won 69 percent of Jewish votes in the 2012 elections, according to exit polls — and a tiny proportion of the national electorate.
However, they wield a political clout that far exceeds their numbers, in large part because Jewish Republicans are some of the GOP’s most important donors. And no donor is more important than the host of this year’s conference, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
The conference was held in the Adelson-owned Venetian Hotel and Casino, and his presence loomed large over the gathering.
National media dubbed this year’s conference the “Sheldon Primary,” in recognition of the many potential Republican presidential candidates who arrived not only to address the crowds, but also for private sit-downs with Adelson, who spent a reported $93 million on the 2012 presidential election and has announced he will spend much more in 2016. He also is backing an effort to bring the 2016 Republican National Convention to Las Vegas.
Along with a Shabbat dinner address by Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, and a scotch-tasting with Israeli venture capitalist Jonathan Medved, this year’s conference featured a cattle call of sorts for GOP presidential hopefuls. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke to an exclusive dinner held at Adelson’s private airplane hangar on Thursday. On Saturday, Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, as well as John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, addressed attendees.
As they gathered beneath the glass chandeliers, painted ceilings and gold leaf ornaments of the Venetian’s palatial surroundings, conference-goers echoed many of the hot-button concerns that have dominated the GOP discourse — creeping socialism, the IRS, Benghazi. But one issue consistently stood out: Israel.
Conferees could be overheard sharing tales of the Democrats’ fecklessness toward the Jewish state, and it was invocations of Israel that drew the loudest applause during the speeches.
“This administration has played Jews for suckers,” Sobel said, accusing the Obama administration of “trying to put Israel in its place.”
“Right now, Jews need to be one-issue voters,” he added.
Adelson, too, has long declared that Israel is his top political issue, above even banning online gambling.
Sensitivities surrounding Israel landed Christie in a bit of hot water during his otherwise well-received speech. The New Jersey governor was holding his audience spellbound with a rapturous description of his recent trip to Israel when he tripped a rhetorical landmine.
“I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across, and just felt, personally, how extraordinary that was to understand the military risk that Israel faces every day,” Christie told the crowd.
Although Christie received a standing ovation at the end of his speech, his use of the phrase “occupied territories” upset some attendees who felt that such wording casts aspersions on Israel’s claim to the West Bank.
“Chris Christie either does not understand the issues affecting Israel or he’s not a friend of Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Klein said he brought up the remarks with Adelson, and Politico subsequently reported that Christie had later apologized to Adelson in a private meeting.
The RJC’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, dismissed Christie’s remark as “a slip of the tongue.”
“I have every confidence that Gov. Christie is an unabashed, unequivocal supporter of Israel,” said Brooks.
Christie was not the only candidate making an effort to connect with the crowd on a Judaic level. Walker spoke of how his son’s name, Matthew, translates from the Hebrew as “a gift from God” and of lighting menorah candles at the Wisconsin governor’s mansion. Kasich described his effort to build a Holocaust memorial on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse.
Bolton brought the crowd to its feet with his fierce denunciations of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy and his call for the United States to firmly back the Jewish state, even if Israel should choose to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But the candidates also touted their broader appeal, with Christie and Walker citing their experience as governors of traditionally Democratic states and Kasich defending his decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, though without explicitly referencing Medicaid or the health care act.
All the speakers also pledged, with varying degrees of specificity, to pursue a muscular and assertive foreign policy.
“Unfortunately, we see within our own party a rising tide of what can only be called isolationism,” said Bolton.
That more isolationist strain in the GOP is particularly associated with a presumed presidential hopeful who was not at the Las Vegas conference, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Brooks said that Paul had been invited to attend but declined in favor of a family commitment.
Brooks said the RJC’s focus was on this year’s midterm congressional elections rather than 2016. Like many Republicans, he is hopeful the party can take control of the Senate. Brooks said the RJC was aiming to broaden its outreach as part of the campaign.
Some of the politicians in attendance seemed to be tailoring their pitches more narrowly. Kasich made it clear that he had a particular target in mind as he concluded his speech to the conclave: “Hey listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me.”