Mike Pence, in Boca Raton, launches Republican effort to court Jewish voters

The Republican Party, widely expected to win big in November, launched an effort Monday to court Jewish voters in South Florida, a solid Democratic voting bloc that has often proven elusive for the GOP.

For its latest effort, the Republican National Committee brought in former Vice President Mike Pence to open the party’s first ever “Jewish Community Center” in Boca Raton, part of the party’s effort to capture slices of the electorate that are vital to Democrats if they have any hope of avoiding a midterm election wipeout.

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“Today here in Florida, I’m here to say to each and every American, especially those of you in the Jewish community, that now is the time for every American to step forward and do everything in our power to win back America starting in 2024,” Pence said. “The Republican Party has stood for ideals that have been characteristic in the Jewish community since before the founding of this country.”

The national Republican Party previously has opened community centers in Orlando and Doral to reach Hispanic voters and a Black American Community Center in Jacksonville. More community centers are planned around the country.

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There’s an element of déjà vu to the Republican push. For the past two decades, Republicans have declared that Jewish voters in Florida are ready to abandon their traditional strong allegiance to the Democratic Party.

And election after election it has failed to materialize in any significant way, said Ira Sheskin, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Miami who specializes in the demography of the Jewish community and editor of the American Jewish Yearbook.

“The Republicans have been talking about a movement of Democrats to the Republican Party for as long as I can remember. And it hasn’t happened yet,” Sheskin said. “Democrats continue to get at least 70% of the Jewish vote. That’s just something that hasn’t changed over time.”

Republicans counter with the 2020 presidential results in Florida. The national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, said more Jewish voters are finding a home in the Republican Party.

“It’s changing. And you’re making it change,” Coleman said at the office opening.

He said former President Donald Trump got 45% of the Jewish vote in Florida in 2020. Exit polling shows Trump got 38% to 43% of the Jewish vote in the state.

Pence has been positioning himself as a potential candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

“We are opening the doors wide to the Republican Party. We are going to win back the Congress in 2022. We are going to re-elect Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, and we are going to win back America in 2024.”

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Pence used the “win back America in 2024,” more than once during his seven-minute speech, but that was his only reference to the looming contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

He’s been distancing himself from Trump — even calling out Trump by name in a speech this year, saying the former president was “wrong” in his insistence that Pence would have been able to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Pence didn’t have the authority to do what Trump wanted.

In Boca, Pence lavished praise on Trump for his support of Israel. “I take great pride in being vice president to the most pro-Israel president in American history,” he said. “The truth is from the very first day of our administration, we were keeping promises that we made to Jewish Americans and to our most cherished ally [Israel.”

A Harris Poll, conducted for the Harvard University Center for American Political Studies and released on April 21, found that if Trump doesn’t run for the party’s 2024 nomination, DeSantis is favored by 35% of Republican primary voters and Pence is favored by 20%

If Trump runs, the poll showed 58% for Trump, 13% for DeSantis and 8% for Pence.

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Midterm elections between presidential years are almost always bad for the party that controls the presidency. And polling shows voters concerned about inflation and crime — and unhappy with President Joe Biden’s performance.

And one measure could provide a bit of cheer for Republicans and concern for Democrats.

A national poll of Jewish voters, conducted from March 28-April 3 for the Jewish Electorate Institute, found 63% approved of Biden’s performance and 37% disapproved.

That’s better than Biden’s fares among the overall population. The early April RealClearPolitics national polling average showed 43% of voters approving and 54% of voters disapproving of Biden’s performance.

It’s also better than Trump, who in 2020 was seen favorably by 23% of Jewish voters and unfavorably by 76%.

But it’s a decline for Biden. Last summer, his approval among Jewish voters was 80%, with 20% disapproving.

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Sheskin said Florida is home to about 500,000 Jewish voters. Though a small percentage of the population, Sheskin said, Jews vote at a higher rate than virtually every other slice of the electorate.

It’s a significant voting bloc in a state with a history of relatively close statewide elections. Trump won Florida in 2020 by 371,686 votes. DeSantis won by 32,463 votes in 2018.

Jewish voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, Sheskin said, citing Pew Research Center data from 2020 that found 71% of U.S. Jewish voters are Democrats and 26% are Republicans, “which is where it’s been for a long time now.”

Among older Jews, Sheskin said about 23% are Republican. For younger Jewish voters it’s 27%. “It’s not like there’s an enormous rush of Jews to the Republican Party,” he said.

There is an exception. “The Orthodox have, over time, become more Republican,” Sheskin said. Among the Orthodox, the breakdown is 75% Republican and 20% Democratic.

“Even though Jews are relatively small in terms of our numbers, we are very active politically,” said Rabbi Mark L. Winer, of West Boca, president of the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus, and former president of the National Council of Synagogues.

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“It’s like it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA how important democracy is. My grandmother was an immigrant, and for her, Election Day was as sacred as Yom Kippur,” Winer said.

State Rep. Randy Fine, from Brevard County and the only Jewish Republican in the Legislature told those gathered at the party’s office opening “we have to tell our Jewish brothers and sisters that the Democratic Party has left them and they are welcome in the Republican Party.”

Republican speakers on Monday touted their party as truer friends to Israel than the Democrats.

“You can stand up in a Republican gathering and say ‘I support Israel,’ and it is an applause line,” Coleman said. Not so in the Democratic Party, he said, citing Democratic progressives who have been critical of Israel.

Winer said it is “absurd” to depict the Democratic Party as being insufficiently supportive of Israel based on a handful of progressives.

“Republicans don’t have a monopoly on being pro-Israel at all. And Republicans, if anything, have more problematic members of the Republican Party than Democrats do. They can point to the [progressive Democratic] Squad … but the Republican Party has people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and other QAnon types who are really problematic in terms of their antisemitism.”

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Sheskin said many people incorrectly assume that more pro-Israel stands from candidates automatically translates into more support from Jewish voters. Unless a candidate is seen as showing outright hostility toward Israel, policy nuances aren’t a major factor in voting.

The April poll found Israel ranked 14th on the list of issues Jewish voters want the president and Congress to focus on. Respondents were asked to pick two issues, and Israel received 4% — well behind climate change, voting rights, jobs and the economy, each of which received at least 25%.

Jewish voters’ views on abortion rights and LGBTQ issues are much more in line with the Democratic Party, Winer and Sheskin said.

“The Jewish community pays attention and votes based on actions, not just words. Republicans can try to hide and distort their horrendous record of discrimination, censoring history in schools, book banning, and their latest anti-reproductive rights, anti-science, and voter suppression laws, but it won’t work,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish woman elected to Congress from Florida and a former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said via email.

“Beyond division, all Republicans offer is tax increases and sunsetting Medicare and Social Security,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Coleman said the Boca location shows that the Republican National Committee “is understanding the importance of the Jewish vote.”

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Though called a “Jewish community center” by the Republican Party, it’s a standard campaign office —not the kind of Jewish community center well known to Floridians. The Republican outpost is a storefront. JCCs in the region are major facilities with classes, sports, youth programs and events for seniors.

Bring it on, Winer said. “I’m not the slightest bit afraid of Republicans going after Jewish votes. That’s fine.”

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @browardpolitics