Rick Santorum’s loss in the Michigan primary has not changed the long view for his Jewish supporters, who say that in times of crisis, social issues don’t matter.
Santorum’s strong challenge in the Feb. 28 contest, where he was narrowly defeated by front-runner Mitt Romney, 41 percent to 38 percent, forecasts a long battle for the nomination. The former Massachusetts governor had to outspend Santorum in a state that just weeks ago he had been expected to win handily.
Michigan, with its battered automaker-based economy and its status as a large Midwestern hub, was considered a critical test.
Now all eyes are on Super Tuesday, March 6, when 437 delegates are at stake in 10 states. In one of the largest of those states, Ohio, a poll taken before the Michigan results showed Santorum leading Romney by 11 points.
Santorum has surged to become the likeliest conservative contender to beat Romney by playing up his blue-collar roots and emphasizing social conservatism on issues such as birth control, abortion and gay rights.
The former Pennsylvania senator is fiercely anti-abortion and believes that states have the right to ban birth control — stances that are at odds with the views of most American Jews. Not a problem, says Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“Jobs and the economy and international affairs, these macro issues are front and center,” he said. “If the micro issues, abortion and contraceptives, become predominant, then you’ve got a problem. But this is a big picture, big issue, high-stakes election.”
The prospect of Santorum winning the Republican nomination excites Jewish Democrats, as well, as they believe he will be an easier opponent for President Obama to beat in November.
The bulk of the Republican Party’s Jewish donors and advisers have signed with Romney. His relative moderation is seen as a natural fit for a GOP Jewish constituency that is hawkish on Israel and often fiscally conservative but averse to extremes on social issues.
“We know [Santorum is] a great friend of Israel,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston lawyer and one of Romney’s leading fundraisers. “I do fear his social views will be anathema to a great deal of our Jewish community.”
Republicans like Zeidman have counted on Romney’s moderation to carry swing states where sizeable Jewish populations could make a difference — for instance, in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
Liberal websites have compiled “greatest of” lists of Santorum’s hard-line stances on social issues.
“During his 99-county tour of Iowa, Santorum frequently compared same-sex relationships to inanimate objects like trees, basketballs, beer, and paper towels,” Think Progress said Jan. 4 after Santorum’s first surprise showing — a virtual tie with Romney in the state’s caucuses.
Santorum “will clearly be a nonstarter with the Jewish community,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I wish him the best of luck in the primaries.”
Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey businessman who is leading Santorum’s fundraising in the Jewish community, says his candidate can overcome his Jewish problem by making his election about the economy and backing Israel as its tensions with Iran increase.
“My sense is that those [social] issues, while they’re important to him, are not what his campaign is about,” Kaplan said.
Ronald Reagan campaigned well to the right of his GOP rivals and predecessors, yet won nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. It was a year, like this one, when the U.S. was tangling with a recalcitrant, unpredictable Iran and a sagging economy. Reagan collected a bigger chunk of the Jewish vote than any Republican had won in decades. No Republican presidential candidate since has matched that level of Jewish support.
Kaplan says 2012 is similar, given the jobs crisis and tensions with Iran. Santorum has been the most hawkish of the candidates, going beyond years of “no options are off the table” language to explicitly say that he would order a U.S. strike if necessary to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.
“Israel is severely challenged today, and all of us are very comfortable with Rick’s stand on Israel,” said Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “And while the economy is showing signs of improvement, it’s been bad for four years.”
Harris of the NJDC said that was wishful thinking, dismissing any efforts to compare Santorum to Reagan or to George W. Bush. While those candidates embraced socially conservative stances, Santorum has been defined by them, he said.
“It’s not that he takes a principled stand [on] abortion,” he said. “It’s that he’s long prided himself on being the most far-right social issues candidate.”