primary colors

In Orange County, a controversial challenger threatens to boot Young Kim off the ballot

Former Mission Viejo Mayor Greg Raths, a Republican challenging GOP Rep. Kim in Tuesday’s primary, drew criticism for his recent remarks about the U.S. Jewish community

Paul Bersebach/Tommy Huynh

Rep. Young Kim, Greg Raths

As voters head to the polls in California tomorrow, one Orange County congressional primary has turned into a surprisingly heated contest that could see an incumbent knocked out — and the advance of a candidate who received widespread criticism for comments he made about the influence of the U.S. Jewish community. 

At a candidate forum hosted by the Orange County Islamic Federation in late May, four-time Republican congressional candidate Greg Raths drew national headlines after a video of him calling out the American Jewish community went viral. 

“The Jewish community has never given me one dime, so I’m not beholden to them at all,” he said. 

In a 45-minute conversation with Jewish Insider last week, Raths attempted to walk back his comments, vowing to be “a little more deliberative in what I say, and I apologize if I offended any Jewish people.”

He also claimed his remarks had been misconstrued and that a video of them had been doctored, leaving out the full context of what he said. But what he insisted he said at the candidate forum does not match up with what he actually told audience members.

“I was trying to tell the Muslim community, Islamic community, if you want to get better at national politics, you’ve got to organize,” he said. “I said, ‘It’s very fractured.’ I said, ‘The only democracy in the Middle East is Israel. And as an American, I have to support — well, I don’t have to, I support Israel because they’re a democracy.’”

But Raths, a former mayor of Orange County’s Mission Viejo who is hoping to unseat first-term Rep. Young Kim (R-CA) in California’s redrawn 40th Congressional District, did not say anything along those lines in the forum, according to a video of the nearly two-hour event that was posted on YouTube. Instead, he called out the influence of Israel and Jews in Washington, and pledged to cut U.S. aid to Israel. 

“I will work with the leaders of both the Israeli — and they’re strong, that’s the problem. You just mentioned, Israeli PAC in Washington, they got money and they control a lot of these politicians. And the other side, the Palestinians, they don’t have the clout. So the money goes — these politicians go where the money is, unfortunately,” he said in response to an audience member’s question about how the candidates would approach the “big bias” in Washington for what the attendee deemed Israel’s “apartheid regime.”

Kim, a moderate Republican who defeated then-Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-CA) in 2020, did not attend the forum. A campaign spokesperson declined to comment on the matter, but Kim criticized Raths in a tweet. 

“These are the types of vile, anti-Semitic comments we have come to expect from the radical left,” she wrote. “And any Republican who is on the same side as Ilhan Omar [D-MN] is not a real conservative.” In recent weeks, Kim’s campaign and a super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have spent more than $1 million on ads boosting her and attacking Raths before Tuesday’s primary. 

After his remarks, Raths lost a high-profile Jewish ally. Ed Sachs, a Jewish Republican who serves on the Mission Viejo City Council, initially endorsed Raths in the race because he didn’t think Kim is conservative enough. But Sachs called Raths after seeing the video and told him he was pulling his endorsement.

Sachs said Raths “became totally defensive about my pulling the endorsement. He was like, ‘A rabbi endorsed me,’ or ‘A rabbi and I serve hot meals together,’ or, ‘I know a rabbi.’ OK, well, mazel tov,” Sachs told JI. “That doesn’t move anything from your comments about, ‘Jews give money to politicians, ergo they control politicians who give more money to Israel, and no money to the country of Palestine.’ That is just abrasively ignorant.”

Raths told JI that the videos posted publicly left out his praise for the Jewish community’s successful political organizing. 

“I said, ‘I haven’t taken a dime from a Jewish PAC, and I don’t ask when people give me money. I don’t ask what their religion is.’ So I said, ‘Probably I’ve taken some money from Jewish people. I just don’t know it, and I will not turn it back to that person,’” he explained to JI. “Because after I said that, I said, ‘Let me clarify.’ So that’s what that was about.”

Raths argued to JI that he was trying to tell attendees why the influence of pro-Israel groups is a good thing.

“This Muslim guy was asking me, he goes, ‘But they’re so powerful in Washington.’ I said, ‘Yeah. Hello. Have you heard of AIPAC?’” Raths continued. “I said, ‘They’re organized, and not as a bad thing. That’s a good thing. They fundraise, they fundraise for candidates, they fundraise for scholarships. They’re a great fundraiser, and they help candidates win. That gives them access. It gives them access to congressmen and [congress]women.’”

This, he said, is what got misconstrued at the candidate forum. “The part that got videotaped was that a lot of them are bought and paid for,” said Raths. “​​It came across that the Jewish people can buy and pay for politicians, and I didn’t mean it that way, and that’s what I apologize for. I didn’t mean it that way. But money talks in Washington.”

But the entire forum was, in fact, videotaped, and the viral clip of his comments included the full context of his remarks. At the candidate forum, he called out “the Jewish community” and criticized what he deemed its undue influence in American politics. His remarks did not include any praise for the Jewish community, despite his claims to the contrary.  

“The Jewish community is very well organized in the United States and they control a lot of politicians. That’s why the foreign aid is so large going to Israel,” he said at the event. “I’m not for a total ban on foreign aid but I think we need to rein in foreign aid and take care of our own country first. I am not at odds with either the Jewish community or the Palestinian community. I’m for peace. If we help one country we should help the other because each country needs to protect themselves. So let’s get the two-state solution solved first and then we’ll go. But I am not in favor with the millions and billions of dollars you’re talking about going to Israel.”

Two other candidates appeared at the forum. Nick Taurus, a far-right Republican who has raised less than $2,000 in the race, shared conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine and vowed to cut off all U.S. foreign aid. The only Democrat in the race is Asif Mahmood, a physician and longtime political activist who has galvanized Democratic supporters in California and around the country. He raised more than $1.4 million in the first three months of this year. Taurus generally agreed with Raths’ comments, while Mahmood did not respond directly to what Raths said about the Jewish community. 

“​​Israel is our ally and we need it there, but we cannot close our eyes for those Palestinian kids,” Mahmood said at the forum. Rather than decreasing aid to Israel, he suggested also increasing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. “There are some big human rights violations. Settlements should stop, and there should be some negotiating table, and both sides have to give and take something and come to a solution,” he told attendees. 

Because of California’s election laws, the top two vote-getters in the June 7 “jungle primary” will advance to the general election. 

Incumbents are generally believed to have an advantage, but because of the redistricting process, roughly 80% of the 40th District consists of areas Kim does not currently represent in the 39th District. And the 40th District is more Republican-leaning than her current one, leading Kim to adopt a more stridently conservative tone, while Raths has painted her as insufficiently Republican. 

“She was representing a multicultural district, and now she’s moving into a more conservative district,” Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange County, said of Kim. “Primaries bring out the most passionate people, and so the primary will favor a conservative for the Republican nomination.”

Raths, a former Marine, is a perennial congressional candidate. He ran in 2014 and 2016 against fellow Republican, incumbent Rep. Mimi Walters, and fell short in both primaries. In 2020, he made it to the general election in a race against Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and lost by seven percentage points. But he managed to raise $1.2 million that election cycle, a figure that dwarfs the $70,000 he said he raised this year. 

“I was not totally shocked to see that he would parrot that same antisemitic trope of Jews running Congress and things like that,” said Smoller, who has followed Raths’ past campaigns. “I want to say this delicately. There’s been a real rise of anti-Asian rhetoric, and so, I don’t know, I think if that type of community could choose a white male, military veteran, that’s the sort of thing that’s gonna be very appealing, as opposed to an Asian female moderate.” (Kim was born in South Korea.) 

Raths tried to blame the video on Kim, telling JI that it was a “plant by my opponent” and claiming that “they clipped it out and they put that out and they sold it. They didn’t sell it. I’m sure they have their friends in the news.”

Upon reflection, Raths said, “I would not have a problem taking money from a Jewish PAC.” He did not explain what he meant by a “Jewish PAC,” or offer an example.

The 40th District, located in the southern part of Orange County, has a relatively small Jewish population, and Jewish life in the county is centered in Irvine, which is in Porter’s district. But members of the local Jewish community have begun to rally against Raths. 

“There’s a grassroots sense of support that we’re going to get this guy out,” one Orange County Jewish leader told JI. 

Richard Hirschhaut, the L.A. director of the American Jewish Committee, said that “such rank stereotyping and bigotry are unacceptable in American political discourse and should be beneath the dignity of a candidate for public office.” Hirschhaut added that he did not buy Raths’ defense about being caught off-guard by the video recording and that the public clips were misleading.

“As a candidate for United States Congress, and former mayor of Mission Viejo, Greg Raths surely knows that nothing is ever off the record,” said Hirschhaut. “So his descent into the cesspool of antisemitic conspiracy theories about ‘Jewish control’ are all the more revealing and disturbing.” 

Raths said the characterization of him as an antisemite surprised him. “​Now they’re saying I’m an antisemite, and I’m Louis Farrakhan, I’m [Rep. Ilhan] Omar, whatever. And that’s not me at all,” he told JI. “Probably about 20 people have called me from the Jewish community, and at the end of the conversation, we’re all good. The two rabbis, they love me here.”

But Sachs, the Mission Viejo city council member, was not sold by this comment — and noted that Raths mentioned his connection to these two rabbis in their phone conversation. “It’s like me saying, ‘I’m not racist, because I have two Black people I know.’ He doesn’t understand what he’s saying,” Sachs added.

The two rabbis with whom Raths has a relationship are affiliated with a small local yeshiva that is not associated with any of the major Jewish denominations in the U.S. It’s “mail-order ordination,” said a rabbi who is familiar with the organization. “Not recognized by any rabbinical group.” 

Raths, who said he “only know[s] three or four” Jews, noted that his rabbi has tried to help him understand the distinction between different segments of the U.S. Jewish community. 

“There’s some Jews that, they’re pro-life, they tend to be more Republican and more conservative,” Raths said. “And then there’s the other Jewish people that are Democrats, and you can never change their mind. He thinks it goes back to Truman, when Truman was against the State of Israel becoming a state.” President Harry S. Truman, Democrat, was the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel. 

Mahmood, the Democrat in the race, told JI in an interview on Friday that he disagreed with Raths’ comments at the forum — “that is not how I feel about that,” he said — and that he hopes to build bridges between religious groups. 

“I have hosted, I think, more Jewish leaders at my home than any other South Asian in the country. Not just Muslim, Asian,” he said. (He did not elaborate on how he came to this conclusion.) 

Mahmood grew up in a rural village in Pakistan, where, he said, people were “misinformed, misguided and kind of giving false information about different religions and sects. And at the top of that is the Jewish religion.”

“People who were there started telling them, guiding them, ‘OKy, Jews are your biggest enemy, they’re this and that and other stuff, and everybody grew up, and people [heard] this every single day from the time they are born,” he recalled. “By the time they are into adulthood, then they have the mindset on that kind of stuff.”

When Mahmood came to the U.S. three decades ago after graduating from medical school, he met Jewish people for the first time. “I realized, really, this is a whole lot of different things. It’s so bigoted, it’s so nonsense what they’re doing. And that is why I have been so close to the Jewish community,” Mahmood said. 

“I am aware that he is concerned about the rising incidence of antisemitism in the region, and I do know that he supports the partnership between the U.S. and Israel,” said Robin Gurien, who is involved with the Orange County chapter of Democrats for Israel California.

Mahmood, who is passionate about human rights and has worked with members of Congress on resolutions related to Kashmir, told JI that he supports the “complete safety and security of Israel,” which he said is good for the U.S., good for Israel and good for all of the Middle East.

“If you take Israel out of the picture in the Middle East, the Middle East will go to ruins. The Middle East cannot even survive,” he said, calling Israel the “only true democracy in the area.” He pledged to continue U.S. military assistance to Israel.

“I am in favor of, already, the bill and budget for Israel’s security, the Iron Dome, I completely support it,” he said of Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. “I do believe that Palestinian kids should have a right to live comfortably, go to school, get career, get jobs and get economic development.” 

Kim, the incumbent, has been endorsed by AIPAC’s PAC, and someone familiar with AIPAC’s efforts in the race said the lobby is “supporting Kim with fundraising efforts” and encouraging “AIPAC members to volunteer and get out to vote for Kim.” 

“Our relationship with Israel is very, very important, and we can find common ground and work on this in a bipartisan, non-political way,” Kim told JI in a November interview in which she stressed her bipartisan bona fides. At the time, it looked like redistricting would leave her with a less Republican district.  

But the way redistricting played out means victory is no sure thing for Kim, who does not live in the 40th District. Raths is “a well-known name,” said Smoller. “He doesn’t have a lot of money compared to Young Kim. But given how polarized the electorate is, he could primary her. It would be an upset, for sure. But I wouldn’t write him off.”