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A few weeks after former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle entered the Senate race, she flew to New York City for a fundraiser at a kosher steakhouse, Le Marais, geared toward her fellow Jewish Republicans.
“I’ve been to events that have already raised in excess of six figures for her,” Republican Jewish Coalition President Matt Brooks said. “This is going to be a real priority race for the organization.”
Just last week, as almost every GOP White House hopeful paraded through the RJC’s presidential forum, Florida Senate candidate Adam Hasner worked the confab, too. Lingle and Hasner aren’t strangers to the Jewish Republican community, and neither is Josh Mandel, a Republican running for Senate in Ohio and one of the most successful fundraisers this cycle.
There’s a small tribe of Jewish Republicans in Congress, with a current membership of just one: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.). But that could change this cycle, especially in the Senate where three Jewish Republicans are running in competitive 2012 races.
“We are blessed with many. The harvest is bountiful,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is Jewish. “There’s a real possibility of doubling or tripling the number of Republican Jews in the Senate. It’s been a pretty exclusive club.”
Coleman, who lost a lengthy 2008 recount battle in mid-2009, was one of the last Jewish Republicans to serve in the Senate. Around the same time, the Senate’s remaining Jewish Republican, then-Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), left the GOP to become a Democrat. Specter then lost re-election in 2010.
Their departure broke a 50-year tradition of at least one Jewish Republican in the Senate that started in 1957, when former Sen. Jacob Javits (N.Y.) joined the chamber.
Democrats have dominated the ranks of Jewish Members on Capitol Hill for decades. Twenty-four Jewish Democrats currently serve in the House, and 12 Jewish Democrats serve in the Senate.
But since spring of 2009, there’s been a drought on the campaign trail, too. Not a single Jewish Republican has headlined a major Senate race since Coleman’s loss.
What makes this cycle different from all other cycles?
Republicans such as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said it’s been an evolution over many years. As one of Israel’s most outspoken GOP supporters on Capitol Hill, Kirk represented — and raised prolific money from — a large Jewish population in his former House district on Chicago’s North Shore for 10 years.
“It was quite small initially. The number of Jewish Republicans who would gather in Illinois could fit in a small diner, and that’s it,” said Kirk, who is not Jewish. “But it has changed pretty profoundly so that now the Republican Jewish Coalition meetings in Illinois will have anywhere between 500 and 2,000 people at the events.”
Kirk said he’s also seen a candidate sea change in his former district, where the entire slate of GOP state legislative candidates this cycle are Jewish. While Jewish voters still tend to be Democrats, Kirk said, Republicans have made inroads with a pro-Israel agenda.
Jewish Republican donors rose to prominence and power over the past decade, working to build a national network of financial support for candidates. They point to well-known GOP fundraisers, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas, hedge fund manager Paul Singer in New York and former Ambassadors Mel Sembler and Sam Fox of Florida and Missouri, respectively.
But only recently has the bench of Jewish Republican candidates caught up with donors’ wallets — and the money shows.
Most notably, Mandel raised more than his opponent, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), for the last two quarters in the competitive Ohio Senate race. Part of Mandel’s funds include a fundraiser in St. Louis hosted by Fox, who helped him raise six figures at an event with RJC members.
Lingle hasn’t had to file her fundraising totals yet for her first quarter in the race, but news outlets reported she brought in $400,000 in the first week of her candidacy. That’s more than either of her Democratic opponents, former Rep. Ed Case or Rep. Mazie Hirono, brought in during the third quarter.
Hasner outpaced his GOP opponents last quarter by raising $535,000 for his challenge to Sen. Bill Nelson (D). However, the dynamic of the primary changed completely when Rep. Connie Mack IV (R) entered the Florida Senate race this month.
Hasner served as Florida’s Jewish outreach chairman for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and held a similar role for the national GOP ticket in 2008. It was on that campaign, Hasner said, that he got to know Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“I haven’t come across a disadvantage yet” as a candidate, Hasner said. “When you’re a Jewish Republican, when you’re a minority of a minority, you have to be even more principled and even more resolved and committed to what you believe in.”
There is one other high-profile Republican Senate candidate with Jewish roots this cycle — although his heritage only came to light six years ago in the midst of another hard-fought Senate race.
Former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) was caught off guard in his failed 2006 re-election race when he, a practicing Methodist, discovered his mother was raised Jewish. The revelation came in the wake of the now-infamous “macaca” moment that ultimately sank his campaign.
Jewish Republicans said he’s always forged ties with their community, but he’s embraced the community in a whole new manner since that revelation.
In August 2010, the former governor delivered a speech to the Jewish Learning Institute, five months before he announced his comeback bid for Senate against former Gov. Tim Kaine (D). Video clips of the event show Allen trying to blow into shofar — the horn of a ram used in Jewish religious ceremonies.
“He was always very close to the RJC and our leaders,” Brooks said. “None of that has changed, and that’s one of the reasons we’re going to be very enthusiastic in our support for him for 2012.”