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DeSantis takes steps to attract center-right Jewish voters

Florida governor's stance on culture war issues could dampen Jewish support he's garnered for school choice bill and upcoming Israel trip

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to police officers about protecting law and order at Prive catering hall on February 20, 2023 in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is taking steps to attract support from the center-right Jewish community ahead of a widely expected presidential campaign launch, even as he has embraced restrictions on abortion that risk alienating moderate GOP voters.

The 44-year-old Republican recently signed legislation that will significantly expand Florida’s school choice program and, later next week, is scheduled to visit Israel to deliver the keynote address at a high-profile event hosted by the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.

The bill was applauded by Orthodox Jewish groups that represent a key constituency, and would be a boon to the state’s Jewish day school population, which is among the largest in the country. The governor’s upcoming speech in Jerusalem, meanwhile, will allow him to flex his pro-Israel record before potentially jumping into the 2024 GOP contest.

The school choice legislation and the trip to Israel “are both definitely appealing to the Jewish community,” Gabriel Groisman, a board member with the Republican Jewish Coalition and a former mayor of Bal Harbour, Fla., said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday.

Still, those moves have come in tandem with more polarizing efforts, including a controversial six-week abortion ban that DeSantis quietly signed into law last week. In response to the bill, a major Republican donor, Thomas Peterffy, said over the weekend that he and “a bunch of friends” were withholding their funding to DeSantis over “his stance on abortion” as well as “book banning.”

Last month, DeSantis also raised alarms among traditional Republican hawks and conservative pro-Israel foreign policy experts when he said that protecting Ukraine from Russian aggression is a “territorial dispute” and not a vital interest to the United States. He has since backtracked on those claims, which drew sharp criticism from a potential GOP primary rival, Nikki Haley, who launched her presidential campaign in mid-February.

Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — where she built a reputation as a vociferous supporter of Israel — has drawn support from several major Jewish and pro-Israel leaders, even as campaign finance reports show she lags behind the sizable fundraising haul of former President Donald Trump, whose contributions surged after he was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury earlier this month.

Jay Lefkowitz, a Jewish leader and former Bush administration official who is backing Haley, said DeSantis “understands” that he will need to compete with the former U.N. ambassador for support from moderate conservative Jewish voters if he enters the presidential race.

“Pro-Israel American Jews would certainly have two good options with DeSantis and Haley,” Lefkowitz, who staunchly opposes Trump, told JI. “The primary distinguishing feature is that Haley has actually demonstrated her incredibly strong or uncompromising or unwavering commitment to Israel on the front lines — and actions often speak louder than words.”

A spokesman for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment. As a congressman, DeSantis was an outspoken advocate of the Jewish state. In 2019, he promised to be “the most pro-Israel governor in America.”

“None of this is new coming from the governor,” said Groisman, who is frequently in touch with DeSantis and plans to support his presidential campaign. “He’s been a staunch supporter of the Jewish community and Israel ever since his first term in Congress.”

While DeSantis has disappointed some traditional conservatives in recent weeks by flirting with an isolationist foreign policy approach, the governor has also offered signs that he’s not straying far from his hawkish record. For instance, he is now reportedly planning to hire his former congressional chief of staff, Dustin Carmack, as a senior adviser on national security issues.

Carmack, who works at the Heritage Foundation, has expressed clear support for backing Ukraine in its war with Russia. He previously studied as a Rotary ambassadorial scholar at Tel Aviv University in Israel, where he received a master’s degree in Middle Eastern history, Hebrew and Arabic, according to an online biography.

While the Jewish vote “isn’t particularly significant in most Republican primaries,” said Frank Luntz, a political pundit and Republican pollster, “the ‘Donor Presidential Primary’ matters a lot, particularly with the passing of Sheldon Adelson,” the late GOP mega-donor. 

“It makes perfect sense that DeSantis would seek to appeal to the Jewish community, as a significant share of donors either live or vacation in Florida,” Luntz added in an email to JI on Monday. “His challenge will be the abortion issue, as most Jewish donors are strongly pro-choice.”

A Jewish Republican fundraiser, who requested anonymity to speak freely, agreed with that view, suggesting that DeSantis’ abortion bill had been misguided. “Is he really appealing to center-right Jews when he’s talking about no abortion after six weeks?”

Regarding the school choice bill and the Israel visit, the fundraiser said, somewhat cynically, that such efforts are “just foundation-building for the presidential race, adding, “You’ve got X number of boxes you’ve got to check off, and one of them is ‘Jewish community.’”

In a statement to JI, meanwhile, Matt Brooks, the chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, called DeSantis “a steadfast and stalwart friend of the Jewish community and the State of Israel.”

“The Florida Jewish community appreciates that friendship, and a historic, record-setting 45% of Jews voted for him in his recent reelection,” Brooks added. “We know Governor DeSantis will receive a very warm welcome in Israel when he visits later this month.”

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