More suburban Jews turning to the Republican Party
Standing at a Skokie Holiday Inn before a table full of “Obama! Oy Vey!” buttons, Anita Ashe and Ellen Warsaw had a strikingly similar story to tell.
The women, both Skokie residents, were born and raised in an environment where voting Democratic was as natural for their families as the Friday Shabbat dinners that were a regular part of their Jewish faith.
Despite that political history, Ashe in recent years has found herself attending events sponsored by he Chicago Chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition after becoming “more and more conservative as I read more and get perspectives on the issue.”
“Many of my friends who are Jewish say because of the Democrats, the women have the right to vote, they can choose,” Ashe said. “And all those things I support, but not the Democrats today.”
A strong Israel trumps other international issues for Ashe. And locally, troubled finances in the Democrat-led state government and unhappiness with Democratic politics have both women expecting to vote Republican in the Nov. 6 election.
A poll released last month shows the women are part of a larger, national trend.
The June 8 Gallup poll showed Jewish American support for a Democratic president at 64 percent — a sizable majority but the lowest level since 1988, when Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was defeated by George H.W. Bush. At the same time, poll results indicate support for Romney is at 29 percent, the highest level of Jewish support for a Republican presidential candidate in 24 years.
The shift is possible, analysts say, because of Romney's focus on the economy over social issues and concern by some that the Obama administration might not be wholly committed to keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
That trend is mirrored locally, members of the Chicago chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition say. They trace the shift's beginnings to a decade ago, when Highland Park Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, then making a first-time bid in the North Shore 10th Congressional District, began to peel away traditional Jewish Democratic votes by combining a socially moderate platform with efforts to strengthen Israel.
Democratic Jewish politicians remain well represented in the Chicago area, from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Evanston Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky to Brad Schneider of Deerfield, a candidate in the 10th District against Republican Congressman Bob Dold.
Because voting Democratic is often connected with the Jewish American culture, many Jewish Republicans in the suburbs say they didn't know there were others like them, says Michael Menis, an Inverness oral surgeon and president of the RJC Chicago.
The RJC has a mailing list of 1,000 and typically draws 100 to 300 members from the Chicago metropolitan area to meetings and events, Menis said.
So far, its primary function has been to “make the community familiar with who's running,” said Richard Baehr, of Chicago, an active member of the chapter. “Everyone knows Obama versus Romney, but not everyone knows the candidates in the state Senate, state House races. It's introducing people, getting them a chance to circulate,” he said.
One of those local candidates is Arie Friedman, a Highland Park pediatrician running against Democratic West Deerfield Township Supervisor Julie Morrison in the hope of succeeding retiring Democratic state Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest in the 29th District.
Another is Jonathan Greenberg, of Northbrook, who is running against five-term Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook in the newly drawn 57th District, which includes parts of Northbrook, Buffalo Grove, Prospect Heights, Arlington Heights, Wheeling, Mount Prospect, Palatine and Glenview.
Greenberg, 38, described himself as a liberal up until 10 years ago, when the 9/11 attacks caused him to start paying attention to national security and eventually to “gravitate intellectually to the other side.”
He remains a social moderate, and supports abortion rights and gay marriage.
Yet, like Friedman, he calls his fiscal and foreign policy conservatism the “most important things to me.”
While Jewish in a heavily Jewish district, Greenberg says he doesn't make what he calls a “Jewish case.”
“There's a taxpayer case. A common sense case. Judaism is timeless heavenly divine sacred things. And politics is necessarily temporal. And human and flawed.”
On the campaign trail, he said, he tells fellow Jews, “We don't make Torah Law in Illinois. We make Illinois law.”
“I think the RJC does a lot of great things. It opens doors. It's a great place to find volunteers, to recruit people who are going to work with the campaign,” Greenberg said. “We didn't know a lot of Republican Jews until we did this. We've lost friends.”
Looking toward November, RJC activist Baehr outlined hopes of a “down ticket” effect of Jewish residents casting votes for Romney and also voting for Republicans in local office.
As to the Chicago RJC's role in that picture, Greenberg, said, the aspect of community is invaluable.
“You'll find among a lot of people in the RJC that they started out liberal and for whatever reason moved. And once they moved they caught a lot of flak from people in the community,” Greenberg said. “They considered it unfair and they want to get together with people who are also passionate about their Judaism and have different political opinions and that's OK.”