House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) speech Monday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) will cap a yearlong strategy aimed at preventing an exodus of Jewish voters from Democratic ranks.
In response to renewed Republican efforts to capture Jewish voters and donors from the Democrats’ traditional base, Hoyer has implemented a multiprong plan to make support for Israel a touchstone of Democratic policy, say lawmakers, aides and party operatives.
In addition to leading a 29-member congressional delegation to Israel last August, Hoyer has urged non-Jewish Democrats to voice support for Israel. At the same time, he has sought to dissuade lawmakers — mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus — from casting “protest votes” on nonbinding, but nevertheless highly symbolic votes critical of Israel.
Hoyer, along with many Democrats, privately worried that last December’s House vote on solidarity with Israel in the fight against terrorism — along with President Bush’s vocal support for Israel — might trigger a realignment of Jewish voting loyalties.
In that roll call, 17 Democrats voted no and 26 abstained, while only four Republican lawmakers voted no and only two abstained.
Democratic strategists cite a nearly identical vote this year on condemning terrorism against Israel as proof that Hoyer’s strategy is working. This July, the number of Democrats voting no or abstaining on the symbolic vote dropped to 11. Hoyer’s efforts are made easier by the defeat last year of two members, Reps. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), who had been highly critical of Israel.
“There’s no official whipping on these bills, but Hoyer has been known to inform members that these votes are closely watched, and that it’s important for the Democratic Party to show solidarity with Israel,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
But Republicans say that Hoyer’s efforts have had little effect on slowing what they believe is a natural realignment of Jewish voters. They cite exit polling from the California recall election showing that 40 percent of Jews voted for a Republican — double the traditional 20 percent baseline of Jewish support for Republican candidates.
Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), the only House GOP member who is Jewish, disputed the possible effect that Hoyer’s efforts might have on the voting habits of Jewish voters.
“Hoyer may claim that he’s doing something, but frankly all I’ve seen is a silencing of the loudest critics of Israel in the Democratic Party,” said Cantor.
“If you compare that to the proactive support for Israel by George W. Bush, it doesn’t really amount to much. It won’t make a difference,” he said. “We’re playing offense, and they’re playing defense.”
Democrats counter that Hoyer’s plan includes much more than tamping down on discordant voices in the Democratic Party. They point to his August trip, in addition to dozens of letters and op-eds he has written.
Those efforts seem to be registering among Jewish leaders, Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, said, “We’ve been very appreciative of the trip Hoyer made.”
“His willingness to put together a working group, both Jewish and non-Jewish, into speaking out on Israel has been incredibly helpful,” he said, adding, however, “The leadership of both parties has been very helpful.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) argued that when both parties are equally strong supporters of Israel, Jewish voters will side with Democrats on the remaining issues.
Ackerman cited the 1998 defeat of Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) by then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as proof that Jews vote Democratic on issues when the Israel question is neutralized.
“No one was stronger on support for Israel than D’Amato, but he lost because the other candidate was equally strong on Israel,” said Ackerman. “You have to be as strong as them on Israel, and then you win. The tie goes to the Democrat.”
Other Democrats, however, worry that domestic pressure to support Israel can lead to a blind endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hard-line government. They argue that in the long run, supporting Sharon will diminish the viability of the Israeli state and the prospects for peace in the region.
For example, when Hoyer, in conjunction with House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), drafted a letter to Bush on the “roadmap” toward peace last May, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) circulated a rival letter, one that included stronger language against Israel.
Republicans say that their party does not have to contend with such divisions and is united behind Bush’s pro-Israel policy.
Matthew Brooks, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, argued that the coming presidential campaign would drown out Hoyer’s efforts.
“In an election year, it’s the candidate at the top of the ticket that matters, and Democrats could have a real problem with that,” said Brooks, referring to Democratic front-runner Howard Dean’s controversial statements about the Middle East situation.
In light of Bush’s strong position on Israel, Democratic operatives are watching Republican overtures to Jewish voters closely.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said, “It’s never a good idea [to] underestimate [Bush adviser] Karl Rove and [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas], but I do think they have a tin ear for issues that matter to the Jewish community.”
Republicans bristled at suggestions that their support for Israel was motivated by politics.
“Tom DeLay believes that Israel represents a clear-cut case of good versus evil, of democracy and standing up against oppressive regimes, and let the political chips fall where they may,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.