WASHINGTON — Rand Paul, the Tea Party insurgent who was the upset victor in last month’s Kentucky Republican Senate primary, could be the biggest headache yet for a Republican Party that hopes to capitalize on the populist surge without being tainted by the movement’s extremists.
While some political observers say Paul’s strong pro-Israel views could be a magnet for Jewish campaign givers, even some ardent Jewish Republicans are worried about what they see as the political newcomer’s views on U.S. foreign policy and his positions on issues such as civil rights.
All of which led the Republican Jewish Coalition to oppose his candidacy for the nomination and, in an unusual move, to spurn him now that he is the party’s standard-bearer.
“Rand Paul is outside the comfort level of a lot of people in the Jewish community, and in many ways outside of where the Republican Party is on many critical issues,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC executive director, adding that leaders of his group worked on behalf of Paul’s primary opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Brooks called Paul a “neo-isolationist” and pointed to positions like his strong opposition to federal legislation barring discrimination by private businesses, although after last week’s storm of controversy Paul insists he would not vote to repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald said Paul is the leading edge of a Tea Party movement that is “a huge problem pointing right at the heart of the Republican Party” — and now the most prominent figure in a churning, amorphous movement that could badly undermine the party’s outreach to Jewish voters.
Jewish Democrats, battered by recent controversies over the Obama administration’s handling of the Israel issue, couldn’t be happier.
“This is manna from heaven for us,” said Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “And it’s not just in Kentucky. Like Sarah Palin, Rand Paul is going to be very good for Jewish Democrats.”
But a prominent GOP strategist said it all depends on how the Republican Party responds to the grass-roots surge that has energized the Tea Party movement.
“The two elements that I see that are consistent across the Tea Party movement are demands for lower taxes and smaller government,” said Lee Cowen, who was a fund-raiser for former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. “Those are things a growing number of Jewish voters agree with.”
Republicans hope to embrace the movement, but many GOP incumbents are also in the crosshairs. First there was the recent defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah by a Tea Party insurgent at a state party convention. Then came Paul’s victory — a huge setback for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who supported Grayson.
Paul, 47, is an ophthalmologist and the son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose libertarian-oriented run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, while ultimately unsuccessful, aroused a big enough and angry enough constituency to represent the first shot of the Tea Party wars. The senior Paul long has been regarded as one of the least friendly members of Congress on Israel.
Not so his son. While sharing his father’s dark view of big government and the Federal Reserve, Rand Paul has issued position papers that sound like he could be reading from AIPAC talking points, praising the “special relationship” between the two allies and a “shared history and common values.”
In one statement, Paul said he “strongly object[s] to the arrogant approach of [the] Obama administration. … Only Israel can decide what is in her security interest, not America and certainly not the United Nations.”
Paul, a strong opponent of foreign aid in general, doesn’t say how he would vote on Israel’s $3 billion appropriation, but he did say he opposes aid to Arab countries that could end up threatening Israel. Such sentiments have earned strong criticism from the anti-Israel right, but praise from some prominent conservatives — including several leaders of the Christian right, a faction that generally worries that the Tea Party candidates focus too little on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Paul “opposes earmarking and supports Israel,” said James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family Evangelical empire in a statement. “He identifies with the Tea Party movement and believes in home schooling. Sounds like my kind of man.”
Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg predicted that Paul’s ascendance could help pull a Tea Party movement with isolationist leanings closer to the pro-Israel orbit.
Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington PAC, pro-Israel political action committee, said he didn’t see his organization choosing sides in the Kentucky race. He added that Paul and most Tea Party backers seems solid on Israel.
“It’s a conservative, populist movement that will have some influence because it’s activated a number of people to become politically involved,” he said. “Looking through my pro-Israel lens, I don’t see it as a negative; I assume most Tea Party people sympathize with Israel’s plight in a region filled with jihadists, even if they don’t support foreign aid. There are some isolationists, but they are a minority.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition, however, still has questions.
“We don’t write off anybody,” said Brooks, its director. “But as it stands now, there are just too many questions about Paul. Is he more like [Sen.] Mitch McConnell, who has been terrific on Israel, or is he more like Ron Paul?
“His civil rights views are another indication of a tone deafness and a point of view that are troubling to a lot of people.”
(This story first appeared at thejewishweek.com.)