Poor Mitt Romney. Even before Newt Gingrich’s stunning upset victory Saturday in South Carolina, it was clear that the presumptive nominee was suffering from an enthusiasm deficit among the rank-and-file voters who have made this year’s primary the most volatile on record. It’s not just average voters who are failing to take to the former Massachusetts governor: Elected party officials have been slower to pick favorites this year than in any primary since 2000.
With the potentially decisive Florida primary less than a week away, that same phenomenon appears to be playing out among Jewish party heavyweights. A Tablet review of campaign-finance records for 175 major Republican Jewish donors shows that, according to the most recent campaign filings, more than 55 percent have yet to give to any primary candidate. Of that 55 percent, nearly two-thirds—64 donors—had already given to a candidate by this time in the 2008 presidential cycle. Among them, more than a dozen have not repeated their support for Romney this year, a group that includes high-profile figures like Richard Fox, a Pennsylvania developer who co-founded the Republican Jewish Coalition; California real-estate mogul Fred Sands; and Ronald Krancer, an heir to the Annenberg fortune who has been a major Republican player in Pennsylvania.
“I like him, but I’m just not sure which Romney’s going to show up, and I think that’s a problem a lot of voters have with him,” said Joel Hoppenstein, an attorney in Miami Beach and Republican Jewish Coalition board member who was among Romney’s earliest donors in January 2007. Hoppenstein said he only recently made what he described as “a very insignificant” donation to the campaign. “Most people are looking for a Reagan figure who can bring social conservatives and fiscal conservatives together, and Mitt Romney is supposed to be that person today—but the public electorate hasn’t embraced him.”
That reality appears to have given some big donors pause. There certainly are major donors who are sitting out the primaries because of other commitments—among them, James Tisch, the CEO of the Loews Corporation and an early Giuliani donor, who is now on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But others who gave early and generously in 2008—not just to Republican primary candidates, but to the party—have yet to emerge from the wings. Sheldon Kamins, the Washington developer who chaired Gingrich’s PAC in the late 1990s—and who gave to Romney in the 2008 primaries—declined to comment on his lack of involvement this year because he has relationships with too many of the candidates. When I asked whether that was also why he had so far declined to give, he replied: “That would be a good surmise.”
The difference between this primary campaign and the last is striking. In the 2008 cycle, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the early favorite among the Jewish donors reviewed by Tablet. Giuliani won primary support from nearly as many of the donors as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Romney combined—partly because of his hometown status among Republican Jewish donors from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but also because he seemed like a credible candidate from the outset. “There were more clearly viable candidates in 2008 than today,” said Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, who has attended fundraising meetings between Republican presidential candidates and potential Jewish donors. “So, people had a choice between people who had a real chance, rather than four or five people who might have a chance.”
In June, Gingrich’s campaign imploded with the mass resignation of his staff, in part because the former speaker had decided to go on vacation in Greece instead of heading to Iowa. It seemed, briefly, that he might not make it into autumn. But as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry faded out, Gingrich re-emerged as a popular favorite in the final weeks of 2011. People who might have been ready to plump for Romney before the primary season now had another option.
So far, Gingrich’s main benefactor has been Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million to the pro-Gingrich super-PAC Winning Our Future earlier this month. (Adelson is also a generous backer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, like so many of the Jewish donors we reviewed, was a Giuliani supporter in the 2008 primary.) He has also enjoyed the backing of Lawrence Kadish, a Long Island real-estate investor who was also a founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Gingrich wasted no time canvassing for support once his star began to rise after restaurant mogul Herman Cain dropped out of the race in December. Before Christmas, Gingrich attended a meeting of Jewish leaders in New York and reportedly won backing from another key figure: George Klein, an investor and a Republican Jewish Coalition board member who had been expected to back Romney.
On Monday, following the speaker’s South Carolina win, Adelson’s wife Miriam ponied up another $5 million for the same pro-Gingrich super-PAC her husband had supported. Abetted by the Adelsons’ largesse, Gingrich’s persistence has inspired donors who had been on the fence to take a second look. “I’ve given a contribution to Romney, but I intend to give to Gingrich,” said Kenneth Bialkin, a partner at Skadden, Arps in New York who has been chair of the Conference of Presidents. Last fall, Bialkin gave to Texas Gov. Rick Perry—the price of attending a private meeting, Bialkin said—but he was loath to commit. “I think Romney is a fine candidate, and if he were the candidate, I’d cheerfully vote for him,” Bialkin told me. “I also think the same of Gingrich,” he added.
Still, Romney has received steadfast support among some formidable Jewish donors, including Mel Sembler, a Florida shopping-center developer who chairs Romney’s Florida finance committee, and Sam Fox, a George W. Bush Pioneer who helped underwrite the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 and gave $90,000 to Restore Our Future, the super-PAC supporting Romney, last spring. He has also won significant backing from Boston philanthropist Ted Cutler, one of Sheldon Adelson’s original business partners, who has given $100,000 to the pro-Romney super-PAC in the past year.
And while Romney might have preferred to be the crowd favorite from the outset, he has steadily won support by attrition, beginning in August when Pawlenty departed the race. In December, Roger Hertog—initially a Pawlenty backer and a major donor to Jewish causes—held a $2 million fundraiser for Romney in Manhattan with hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, a partisan of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who declared in October that he would not run for the presidency this year. Pawlenty backer Bernard Marcus, the Home Depot founder and Republican Jewish Coalition board member, recently agreed to give to Romney’s campaign after spending months declining to engage with the remaining candidates, according to Fred Zeidman, a Texas oilman and former McCain finance chairman who is spearheading Romney’s Jewish outreach.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the overriding consideration is that we have to beat Obama,” said Zeidman. “So, there has to be a kumbaya moment at some point, because this can’t go on.”
Which candidates are Jewish Republicans supporting? A sample of 20 prominent donors.
List includes major donors and board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition; campaign donations as reported by the Federal Election Commission as of Jan. 24, 2012, via OpenSecrets.org.
*Does not include donations not yet reported in Federal Election Commission data provided by OpenSecrets.org as of Jan. 24, 2012. Adelson and his wife have given an additional reported $10 million to the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future super-PAC.