Pro-Israel funds target candidates no matter what party

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washington | Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) moved out of one political home when Democrats rejected him in an August primary, but an influx of campaign cash since his loss shows he’s more welcome than ever in another — the pro-Israel community.

Since he lost the Democratic nomination — and its financial backing — for his Senate seat, Lieberman has become the top fund-raiser among American Jews whose primary political focus is support for Israel.

Insiders say Lieberman is expected to earn as much as $2 million from pro-Israel donors, about one-tenth of his total projected war chest.

Other candidates topping the list of pro-Israel financial support include Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.); Sheldon Whitehouse, who is challenging Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.); Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.); and Brad Ellsworth, who is challenging U.S. Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.).

The money is being raised by a loose network of donors, many of whom have strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. Other Jewish donors may make Israel a high priority but also consider domestic issues, including reproductive choice, church-state separation and other social and welfare policy concerns.

With Democrats and Republicans vying for control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the Nov. 7 elections have generated an unusually high level of political donations and spending. Jewish donors, often central to political fund-raising, are deeply engaged once again.

Numbers are hard to track, but multi-issue Jewish givers are believed to give much more overall than single-issue, pro-Israel donors.

Among the trends in pro-Israel money, fund-raisers say, is a rush to defend endangered Israel-friendly incumbents, the majority of whom are Republicans. There is also significant support directed toward challengers of incumbents such as Chafee and Hostettler, who are not considered friendly to Israel.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, several Lieberman donors said that the iconic Jewish politician is drawing heavy support from Republican as well as Democratic Jewish donors. Lieberman, who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, is running as an independent after his primary loss, but has pledged to support the Democratic caucus if re-elected.

Lieberman always has elicited significant Jewish support, but backers say that support intensified among pro-Israel donors once he lost his party’s backing.

Lieberman backers have hosted major fund-raisers in Connecticut; in Boca Raton, Fla.; in Chicago; and in northern New Jersey. Those events earn a minimum of $50,000, and a mid-October event in Los Angeles is expected to bring in $1 million, organizers said.

“Joe’s experience and his commitment to the state of Israel would be a huge loss” if he were ousted from the Senate, said Marvin Lender, a Connecticut entrepreneur and longtime Lieberman backer who has contributed to his campaign.

Few believe that Ned Lamont, the cable TV millionaire whose anti-Iraq war campaign defeated Lieberman in the Democratic primary, won’t be supportive on Israel. Indeed, Lamont explains his opposition to the Iraq war by saying that it strengthened Iran, Israel’s deadliest rival.

But Lieberman’s long record defending Israel, not to mention his strong Jewish identification, makes him the favorite for pro-Israel funders, Lender said.

Lieberman characterizes Lamont as an unaccountable millionaire — but Lamont’s wealth, paradoxically, has boosted Lieberman.

U.S. law allows donors to increase their donation limit from $2,100 each for primaries and general elections, and as much as $12,600 if the candidate’s opponent is self-funded. Insiders say that helps explain Lieberman’s stunning showing among Jews and those focused on the Israel issue.

Other major beneficiaries of pro-Israel munificence in midterm elections for the Senate include Santorum, Menendez, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.).

Along with Lieberman, those senators have three things in common that are surefire magnets for pro-Israel money: They’re incumbents, they’re very friendly to Israel and their re-election prospects are grim.

Two Democratic non-incumbents that may benefit from pro-Israel largesse are Whitehouse, a former Rhode Island attorney general hoping to unseat Chafee; and Ellsworth, an Indiana sheriff taking aim at Hostettler. Both challengers are leading the incumbents in polls, thanks in part to the infusion of pro-Israel funds.

Whitehouse can thank Chafee for the estimated $1 million in pro-Israel funding he’s expected to attract across the country. Chafee, a Rhode Island moderate, is consistently cool on Israel, and didn’t help himself earlier this month when he delayed confirmation of John Bolton, the strongly pro-Israel ambassador to the United Nations.

Chafee cited Israel’s settlement policy in explaining the delay on Bolton. Analysts now say that Bolton, who is serving as an interim ambassador, will have to be replaced in January.

In Indiana, Hostettler, who often votes against legislation backed by AIPAC, is a social conservative, making him an especially tempting target for Jews, who tend to be overwhelmingly liberal-to-moderate.

In some races, those values ultimately clash: For many Jews, Santorum’s strong pro-Israel support is not enough to offset his hard-line opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and support for tax cuts and expanding the government’s subpoena powers.

His opponent, Casey, is getting far less purely pro-Israel money but overall, he is getting more Jewish money than Santorum’s $1 million, insiders say. Casey has easily raised $3 million among Jews in Pennsylvania and other states such as New York and California, political insiders say.

“For people who are only single-issue, they’re sticking with Santorum,” said Betsy Sheer, a media-training specialist who is advising the Casey campaign. “For people who are pro-Israel and are looking at domestic issues, like separation of church-state and privacy, they’re supporting Casey.”

That face-off — between single-issue, pro-Israel givers who back friendly incumbents, and liberal Jewish donors who back challengers who also have proved their pro-Israel bona fides — is occurring in several states.

In Montana, Jews are giving both to Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, and to his challenger, Jon Tester, the Montana Senate president. The same is true in a House race in Florida, where long-serving Republican Rep. Clay Shaw is fighting back Ron Klein, who is Jewish and the minority leader in the state Senate.

Shaw is getting much more purely pro-Israel cash than is Klein, while Klein, who also is supportive of Israel, is getting more money from Jews in general.

It’s hard to assess overall giving levels, because individuals are more likely to donate directly to the campaign instead of to political action committees, which have a $10,000 limit to any particular candidate in an election season. Direct donations are more appealing because they offer better access and are difficult to trace.

The Center for Responsive Politics tracked 33 pro-Israel PACs that had given $2,096,782 by the beginning of September, including $1,135,383 to Democrats and $873,899 to Republicans. Insiders say PACs account for about 10 percent of overall donations made by donors concerned primarily about Israel.

Many of the House incumbents earning pro-Israel attention are Republicans, including Reps. Curt Weldon and Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania and Reps. Chris Shays and Rob Simmons in Connecticut. That’s partly because it’s mostly incumbent Republicans who face strong challenges this season, reeling from bad news in Iraq and an economy that many middle-class Americans still find daunting.

At the same time, Jews are heavily supporting some of their Democratic challengers, including Lois Murphy in Pennsylvania, who is challenging Gerlach.

“Some of it is legitimately attributable to this phenomenon of Republicans in power,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Clinton administration communications official who is a Democratic strategist. “The pro-Israel money goes grossly disproportionately to incumbents who have been good on Israel.”

He expressed concern, however, that pro-Israel givers have been swayed by an aggressive Republican campaign to draw Jewish donors away from the Democrats, the party Jewish voters overwhelmingly have favored.

Republican Jews say Democrats have the problem, citing surveys that show rank-and-file Democrats much likelier to favor a more balanced U.S. approach to Israeli-Arab issues.

“We’re illuminating the fact that support for Israel is eroding within the Democratic Party,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “They need to address the root causes.’

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.