Rand Paul, the Tea Party insurgent who was the upset victor in last week’s Kentucky Republican Senate primary, could be the biggest headache yet for a Republican Party that hopes to capitalize on the populist surge without getting tainted by the angry movement’s extremists.
While some political observers say Paul’s strong pro-Israel views could be a magnet for Jewish campaign givers, even some ardent Jewish Republicans are worried about what they see as the political newcomer’s views on U.S. foreign policy and his positions on issues such as civil rights. All of which led the Republican Jewish Coalition to oppose his candidacy for the nomination and, in an unusual move, to spurn him now that he is the party’s standard- bearer.
“Rand Paul is outside the comfort level of a lot of people in the Jewish community, and in many ways outside of where the Republican Party is on many critical issues,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC executive director, adding that leaders of his group worked on behalf of Paul’s primary opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Brooks called Paul a “neo-isolationist” and pointed to positions like his strong opposition to federal legislation barring discrimination by private businesses, although after last week’s storm of controversy he insists he would not vote to repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald said Paul is the leading edge of a Tea Party movement that is “a huge problem pointing right at the heart of the Republican Party” — and now the most prominent figure in a churning, amorphous movement that could badly undermine the party’s outreach to Jewish voters.
Jewish Democrats, battered by recent controversies over the Obama administration’s handling of the Israel issue, couldn’t be happier.
“This is manna from heaven for us,” said Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). “And it’s not just in Kentucky; like Sarah Palin, Rand Paul is going to be very good for Jewish Democrats.”
But a prominent GOP strategist said it all depends on how the GOP responds to the grass-roots surge that has energized the Tea Party movement.
“The two elements that I see that are consistent across the Tea Party movement are demands for lower taxes and smaller government,” said Lee Cowen, who was a fundraiser for former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. “Those are things a growing number of Jewish voters agree with.”
The Tea Party activists and their political passion offer a major opportunity for the Republicans as they seek to regain control of Congress and set the stage for the 2012 presidential election, he said.
“It’s just a grass-roots movement that’s still relatively disorganized,” he said. “It’s up to the Republicans to take advantage of it. The key will be to find ways to make this work with the Republican core.”
And a leading political scientist predicted that Paul’s ascendance could help pull a Tea Party movement with isolationist leanings closer to the pro-Israel orbit.
Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg said Rand Paul is a “godsend — he’s the sort of the person the Jewish community should be working with.”
Ginsberg says that much of the Tea Party movement is isolationist, and it includes “some who are seen as meshuganah,” or crazy.
But Paul represents a major opportunity for pro-Israel campaign givers to influence that movement, he said.
Ginsberg’s calculus applies only to campaign givers. Jewish voters “are still Democrats; it would take a major earthquake to upset that,” he said.
But with Jews making up a miniscule proportion of the overall electorate but a huge proportion of major campaign givers, any shift of Jewish money to the incipient Tea Party and its advocates could be significant in 2010, he said.
Extrapolating from Paul’s stunning victory last week to the broader Tea Party movement and to a Republican party that hopes to exploit the voter frustration it has tapped is difficult, political experts warn, in part because calling this a “movement” at all ignores its leaderless, amorphous nature.
“It’s not a single movement,” said the University of Florida’s Wald. “The most interesting thing about the Tea Party movement is that it’s so different wherever it happens to be.”
The movement encompasses everything from “tax-cutting, anti-government conservationism to loony libertarianism,” he said. “That makes it very hard to get a real fix on it.”
Republicans hope to embrace it, but many GOP incumbents are also in the cross hairs, as the recent defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) by a Tea Party insurgent at a state party convention and Paul’s victory — a huge setback for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.), who supported his vanquished opponent —demonstrated.
Enter Rand Paul, the 47-year-old ophthalmologist and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose libertarian-oriented run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, while ultimately unsuccessful, aroused a big enough and angry enough constituency to represent the first shot of the Tea Party wars.
The senior Paul has long been regarded as one of the least friendly members of Congress when it comes to Israel.
Not so his son. While sharing Ron Paul’s dark view of big government and the Federal Reserve, Rand Paul has issued position papers that sound like he could be reading from AIPAC talking points, praising the “special relationship” between the two allies and a “shared history and common values.”
In one statement, Paul said he “strongly object[s] to the arrogant approach of [the] Obama administration. ... Only Israel can decide what is in her security interest, not America and certainly not the United Nations.”
Paul, a strong opponent of foreign aid in general, doesn’t say how he would vote on Israel’s $3 billion appropriation, but he said he opposes aid to Israel’s adversaries.
Such sentiments have earned strong criticism from the anti-Israel right, but praise from some prominent conservatives — including several leaders of the Christian right, a faction that generally worries that the Tea Party candidates focus too little on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Paul “opposes earmarking and supports Israel,” said James Dobson, founder of the “Focus on the Family” Evangelical empire in a statement. “He identifies with the Tea Party movement and believes in home schooling. Sounds like my kind of man.”
Some political observers, including Johns Hopkins political scientist Ben Ginsberg, predict an uptick in interest in Rand by pro-Israel campaign givers because of his strong support for Israel — and because of his sudden new status as the brightest star in the Tea Party cosmos.
But the head of a pro-Israel political action committee said he doubts Paul will attract significant amounts of Jewish money.
“In my little corner of the world, the focus is on helping incumbents who have been good on Israel — and occasionally trying to knock off somebody who has been bad,” said Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington PAC. “In this case, we’re talking about an open seat in Kentucky; I wouldn’t anticipate our PAC will get involved in that.”
Amitay sees the Tea Party movement as an open book as far as Israel is concerned. “It’s a conservative, populist movement that will have some influence because it’s activated a number of people to become politically involved,” he said. “Looking through my pro-Israel lens, I don’t see it as a negative; I assume most Tea Party people sympathize with Israel’s plight in a region filled with jihadists, even if they don’t support foreign aid. There are some isolationists, but they are a minority.”
But with the Tea Party a relatively leaderless political agglomeration that includes traditional conservatives, conspiracy theorists and members of old-line far-right groups like the John Birch Society, observers like the University of Florida’s Wald say it’s unlikely the movement will become centrist enough to attract even Jewish givers who focus exclusively on the single issue of Israel.
“It’s the kind of movement that attracted McCarthyites in the 1950s,” he said. “It is an open door for all kinds of extremists; all kinds of people will hop onto this movement. You see a lot of hostility to bankers that may be code text that will worry the Jews. It’s ironic, because this new kind of populism came along just as Jews were starting to penetrate the Republican Party organizationally.”
Wald said the GOP faces some difficult choices as it tries to absorb major elements of the Tea Party movement without getting tarnished by its reputation for extremism and, in some cases, nuttiness — choices that will affect the party’s prospects with Jewish voters and donors alike.
That’s clearly the kind of anxiety that has lead the Republican Jewish Coalition, the central body of Jewish Republicans, to say no to Paul, at least for now.
“We don’t write off anybody,” said RJC director Brooks. “But as it stands now, there are just too many questions about Paul. Is he more like [Sen.] Mitch McConnell, who has been terrific on Israel — or is he more like Ron Paul? His civil rights views are another indication of a tone deafness and a point of view that are troubling to a lot of people.”
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