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At RJC summit, occasional Trump, DeSantis slips can be forgiven

“Any one of them is better than Joe Biden,” Norm Coleman, national chairman of the RJC and a former U.S. senator, told JNS of all the Republican presidential candidates.

Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator and national board chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaks at the RJC annual summit in Las Vegas on Oct. 28, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the RJC.
Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator and national board chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaks at the RJC annual summit in Las Vegas on Oct. 28, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the RJC.

Republican Jewish Coalition leaders are heartened by the turnout—both attendees and every leading Republican presidential candidate—of the RJC’s annual Leadership Summit in Las Vegas over the weekend.

“I was shocked and amazed that so many people have gathered at this critical time when Israel is under siege, when the Jewish community is threatened by antisemitism at home, to come together in solidarity,” Matt Brooks, CEO of the coalition, told JNS.

“It was just very gratifying to be amongst so many people at this difficult time,” Brooks added. “It was comforting and I think really gave everybody a sense of community and a sense of well-being.”

The event’s biggest takeaway was the affirmation that, unlike the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is so entrenched in support of Israel that any speaker who declares support for the Jewish state will be roundly applauded, Brooks said.

Even occasional slips can be forgiven too, it seemed.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is running for his old job, received the loudest ovation during Saturday morning’s plenary, despite having recently disparaged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and seeming to compliment the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah.

Trump’s “incredible pro-Israel record” during his four years as president gives his supporters cover to forgive him, Brooks told reporters on Saturday. “His record is unblemished on this.”

Former White House staffer Ari Fleischer, an RJC board member, admonished Trump and told reporters over the weekend that “He shouldn’t have said it,” of Trump’s Hezbollah comments.

But Flesicher said that Trump’s record is “so strong and so good, he still has a deep pool of goodwill.”

Chipping away in the Capitol

Presidential headliners grabbed much of the attention at the RJC event, but a difficult fight for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate looms next year as well.

Surveys show that Republicans have steadily chipped away at Democrats’ sizable and historic advantage with U.S. Jewish voters, with Trump snagging 30.5% of the Jewish vote in 2020, including 43% in Florida and 50% in Georgia.

“Those are the states that decide elections,” Brooks told JNS. “We’re extremely encouraged, and we’re gonna continue to work to peel away support from the Democrats.”

Norm Coleman, national chairman of the RJC and a former U.S. senator, said the coalition will target areas “where Jews can make a difference,” specifically Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.

Coleman said the Orthodox Jewish community played a key role in flipping multiple New York-area House seats in 2022, leading to a Republican House takeover. “We’ve got to do a little bit better with the Conservative and the Reform Jews to make the difference we’d like to make,” he said.

Asked how Republicans can replicate success with New York Jewish voters elsewhere in the country, Coleman chuckled. “We need more Lee Zeldins,” he said, of the former congressman, whose strong campaign and surprisingly-close gubernatorial loss to incumbent Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted down-ballot Republicans.

The RJC will start that targeting process before the party coalesces around a presidential candidate, Brooks said.

“Any one of them is better than Joe Biden,” Coleman told JNS of Saturday’s candidate lineup in Vegas. “There’s a lot of talent out there.” (He said the same during his public remarks introducing the candidates on Saturday.)

Coleman pointed to “kitchen table” issues, such as the economy and crime, as factors affecting a general shift among U.S. Jewry towards Republicans. Now, with many on the political left siding in a blatant fashion with Hamas over Israel, Coleman is hopeful of a U.S. Jewish “awakening” about which party will best protect them.

Coleman was also quick to defend Trump’s recent attacks on Netanyahu (“I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down”) and Gallant (“this jerk”), and his remarks about the Iran-backed terror group (“Hezbollah is very smart”).

“You’ve got to distinguish between a simple comment that someone makes versus the record of what they’ve done,” Coleman told JNS of Trump. 

Coleman deployed the same defense of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ardently pro-Israel, Republican politician who has come under fire. Randy Fine, Florida’s only Jewish Republican in the state legislature and the former Jewish outreach chair for DeSantis, said of the Florida governor, “I love his words. His actions have broken my heart.” Fine also charged that DeSantis has not sufficiently denounced the growing neo-Nazi movement in Florida and said that he now supports Trump for president.

“Every word may not be perfect, but I look at the record of Ron DeSantis in terms of standing up for the Jewish community in Florida, in terms of fighting antisemitism,” Coleman said. “I think it’s as sterling as you get.”

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