Ted Cruz loves Orthodox Jews — and they love him back.
It’s a dynamic that allows the hard-line conservative presidential contender — a practicing Southern Baptist himself — to tap Orthodox donors more aggressively than any other 2016 candidate, as he zeros in on a small but potentially winnable slice of an otherwise deeply Democratic demographic.
Leaders in the Orthodox community point approvingly to his vigorous opposition to the administration’s negotiations with Iran, his comfort level with religious references and, most important, his passionate support for Israel, a theme he touched on during his presidential announcement speech.
“I share a great many values with the Jewish community and the Orthodox community,” Cruz said in a phone call during his first swing through Iowa as a presidential candidate. “Chief among them is a passionate dedication to strengthening our friendship and alliance with the nation of Israel.”
And while no one doubts the sincerity of that position, it’s exactly that connection to Israel that has given Cruz entree into the Orthodox donor world. Very religious Jews are more likely to prioritize a strong Zionist approach while embracing traditional views on social issues, a dynamic that makes Cruz a natural fit.
“Sen. Cruz started earlier than everyone else, so he’s probably had more contact in the community than anyone else,” said Phil Rosen, a New York lawyer who was a major bundler for Mitt Romney. “Many of the candidates have begun to recognize that the Orthodox Jewish community probably fits more closely to the Republican conservative viewpoint than many other groups. And I think, for the first time, in the Romney campaign, people like me were able to raise a tremendous amount of money from the Orthodox community because of that closeness of the mind-set on issues like Israel, and Israel’s safety and security.”
Less than 24 hours after announcing his candidacy last month, Cruz hit his Week One fundraising goal of $1 million, in large part from money raised at a New York City event that included a “sizable” Orthodox contingency, according to a source. (The host of the event, Rebekah Mercer, is not Jewish. She and her family, major Republican donors, are now running a super PAC backing Cruz.)
The Orthodox community is 10 percent of the Jewish population, a group that, in turn, makes up about 2 percent of the U.S. population and is heavily concentrated in Democratic-leaning urban areas. Asked about the political utility of engaging such a small group, Cruz pointed to fundraising and also nodded to states like Florida and Ohio, which have historically been general election swing states and have sizable Jewish populations.
“The Jewish community has always played an important role in the political process, both as swing voters in a number of swing states, and also as key donors and financial supporters,” Cruz said. “They take seriously the stakes that are posed, the gravity of the threats.”
In the past several weeks alone, Cruz has met with an influential Orthodox rabbi from New York, hosted an event with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to highlight the dangers of a nuclear Iran, and made an appearance at a swanky Passover gathering in California that drew wealthy Orthodox Jews.
“The Orthodox segment is more open to supporting Republicans, and some individuals in the Orthodox community are active in political fundraising contributions,” said Nathan Diament, head of the Orthodox Union, who said Cruz has been the most “proactive” of the 2016 contenders in engaging Orthodox Jews. “That’s why you’ll see more activity on the Republican side, reaching out to the Orthodox community, than you’ll see more broadly [in engaging the rest of the Jewish community].”
Over the past year, Cruz has also showed up at Sabbath services at swanky synagogues in the Hamptons; in Bal Harbor, Florida.; and in Beverly Hills, California. His deputy chief of staff, Nick Muzin, will often spend the weekend with the community, and Cruz will pop in for a Saturday morning sermon. Muzin, who is playing several roles on Cruz’s campaign, including serving as a senior adviser, has shepherded many of the senator’s connections to the Orthodox world, according to about a half-dozen Jewish leaders.
Muzin’s longtime relationships with leaders in the Orthodox community help explain Cruz’s focus on that segment of the Jewish donor class. For example, Howard Jonas, CEO of Genie Energy , has had Cruz over for Sabbath dinner and said he and his friends have supported him in the past and expect to contribute again. That invitation came because Jonas is friends with Muzin.
Cruz is one of the two most active 2016 contenders in reaching out to the Jewish community as a whole, even beyond the Orthodox community, said one currently unaligned Republican fundraiser who works with Jewish donors. The other is Rand Paul, said the source, noting that the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator has sought to reassure hawkish donors that he is sufficiently pro-Israel. But other more establishment-friendly Republicans, like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, are considered likely to do better in the broader Jewish GOP donor world, which tends to support more moderate Republicans.
He doesn’t necessarily have a lock on the Orthodox Jewish donor class yet, either. Rich Roberts is something of a kingmaker among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Lakewood, New Jersey, who frequently hosts politicians at his home, including Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul and connects them to leaders in that deeply religious community. But he hadn’t yet made time to meet with Cruz, beyond a brief session in a hotel suite in Florida about a year ago, despite urging from the Texan’s camp. Roberts, who likes Walker, said in an interview that “this round might not be [Cruz’s] round to run.”
But in many corners of the Orthodox community Cruz is a “folk hero,” said Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox Republican operative. He assumed that mantle last fall when the senator told a group of Middle Eastern Christians booing Israel that “if you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.”
“All of a sudden, that put him very much top-of-mind as a strong defender [of Israel], someone who felt in his gut about the Middle East the way the Orthodox community does,” said Ballabon, the architect of George W. Bush’s groundbreaking outreach to the Orthodox community, a group that Republicans previously had largely ignored. “He didn’t think, ‘I’m going to be the candidate for the Orthodox Jews.’ When that video went viral, all the Orthodox Jews were clamoring to meet him.”
Ballabon first met Cruz when the senator was running as an underdog in the 2012 Texas GOP primary. He attended a Sabbath dinner Ballabon organized at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and appeared comfortable staying at the religious event for hours. Ballabon said Cruz is “clearly a person of great faith.”
At CPAC this year, some of Cruz’s most ardent supporters were yarmulke-wearing yeshiva students, several of whom said in interviews at the time that they were so impressed with Cruz’s support for Israel that they didn’t much care whether he could win the GOP primary — they would be supporting him anyway.
For Cruz, who attended an elementary school in Houston that was about half Jewish — he grew up wishing his family would celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas — the interest in Israel began in 1976, he said, as a very young Cruz learned of the Entebbe raid, an Israeli military operation to save airline passengers held hostage in an airport terminal in Uganda. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni was killed leading that raid.
“It struck me as a profoundly Texan approach to an act of terrorism,” said Cruz, who is an admirer of the hawkish prime minister. That tough response appeared to stem from “a foreign policy approach driven from strength, which I often wish American foreign policy more closely resembled.”
The senator also suggested he connects well with Jews because for his family, America was a safe haven from oppression in Cuba, just as it has been for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and elsewhere.
Last fall, Cruz deeply impressed Mort Klein, the head of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, during a 45-minute conversation about Israel. Klein decided to invite Cruz to a November ZOA dinner, which drew major Jewish donors, including some who are Orthodox.
“In coming to our dinner, seeing the response [from] people at the dinner, and the very wealthy Jewish activists at the dinner, I think this made him understand, ‘My God, Jews understand my position on Israel, even though I’m a Republican and most Jews are not, maybe they will be interested in considering being supportive of me,’” Klein said.
That’s a premise Cruz has been exploring so much that Tevi Troy, a former Bush administration official and another friend of Muzin’s, relayed a joke making the rounds: “I’ve heard Cruz is also available for brises and bar mitzvahs, because he’s been so active and eager.”
This article was published by Politico and may be found here.