In Las Vegas, Jewish Republican confab weighs one more roll of the dice on Trump

Speakers point to victorious Virginia race where GOP candidate kept ex-president at arm’s length, but also note support for Trump’s Israel policies make him difficult to ignore

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Then-US President Donald Trump waves as he leaves the stage after speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting, Saturday April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Then-US President Donald Trump waves as he leaves the stage after speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting, Saturday April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

LAS VEGAS — The Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership conference this weekend could not have come at a better time, as far as its organizers were concerned.

“After Tuesday, do you feel pretty good about things?” Senator Lindsey Graham asked the crowd of roughly 700 attendees, evoking an eruption of cheers that filled the Venetian Resort ballroom in Las Vegas on Saturday evening.

The surprise victory of the GOP’s candidate for governor in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, along with a wave of strong performances by other Republican candidates in last week’s elections has the party confident that these are signs of things to come, with the 2022 midterms on the horizon.

But it was the way Youngkin defeated the Democratic incumbent that grabbed the attention of many RJC members, who could be heard throughout the conference debating how best to move forward after losing both Congress and the White House in 2020.

Youngkin ran on many of former president Donald Trump’s policies but avoided having the Republican party leader join him on the campaign trail. He called for investigating unproven claims of voter fraud in the previous presidential election, while also asserting that US President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump was legitimate.

The careful dance Youngkin played with the former president — keeping Trump at arm’s length, while making sure not to anger him — is what RJC leaders are hoping to replicate in the years ahead.

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, Nov. 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But views on the matter appeared more divided among many of the attendees at the Vegas conference, with some happy to forget about Trump and others sure that his continued presence represents the key to Republican victories in 2022 and 2024.

Kissing the ring

There were a variety of takes among the conference headliners — RJC household names and rising Republican stars alike —  relating to Trump, and each of them was warmly received by the conservative crowd, indicating that there may not be one favored way of going about it.

Every speaker made a point of praising Trump’s record on Israel, namely his decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

But some didn’t stop there.

“It was the greatest honor of my life, to serve as vice president with President Donald Trump,” said Mike Pence, who was one of the more effusive speakers in his remarks about the former president.

Former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer argued that Trump should’ve won a Nobel Peace Prize for his administration’s brokering of the Abraham Accords — the series of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states — an argument that was received positively by the cheering crowd.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP)

“Israel had the best friend in the White House since the establishment of the Jewish state,” Graham said of the former Republican president.

But the GOP senator also offered somewhat of a caveat, telling the crowd, “I tried to get him to talk about his presidency in terms of policy,” as if to say that Trump was mistakenly focusing on other issues.

Senator Ted Cruz took a similar approach in his remarks on Friday evening, stating that Trump “demonstrated extraordinary courage” in moving the US embassy and withdrawing from the Iran deal. But in both cases, he suggested that the president made those decisions because Cruz “engaged actively, directly and repeatedly” with Trump, who he claimed was apparently in need of the senator’s guidance.

Trump’s one-time UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Senate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy each pointedly praised Trump, while focusing largely on their own personal records, particularly on domestic issues.

“Everybody seems to think that the way to appeal to the Jewish vote is to talk about Israel, Israel, Israel,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks told reporters in a Saturday briefing.

“The reality is the Jewish community, like the mainstream community, cares about a lot of different things. They care about jobs, the economy and certainly education,” said Brooks.

“So we’ve been talking about education as a Jewish value — whether it be school choice or parental involvement. We know that this issue has resonated with Jewish voters for a long time,” he said, turning to one of the most emphasized issues at the conference — and Youngkin’s successful campaign — where attendees booed at mentions of critical race theory and the shuttering of schools during the pandemic.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie also focused on domestic affairs in his Saturday remarks, but he made a point in going further than any other candidate in repudiating Trump, who continues to call into question the results of the 2020 election.

“We can no longer talk about the past and past elections. No matter where you stand on that election, it is over. Every minute that we spend talking about 2020, all the wasted time that we’re there, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are laying ruin to this country. We better… take our eyes off the rear-view mirror and start looking through the windshield,” he said to tepid applause from large parts of the crowd.

The swipe did not impress Boris Epshteyn, Trump’s former special assistant who was also in the audience on Saturday.

“We cannot move forward in this country until we get to the bottom of what happened in the 2020 election,” he told The Times of Israel. “We need forensic audits and canvasses all across the country. I am confident that those audits will prove that President Trump won.”

“Governor Christie is absolutely entitled to his opinion, but it does not represent the current view of a huge majority of the Republican Party,” he added.

‘It’s not about Trump’

The RJC leadership appeared to view things differently though.

Trump was invited to address the conference, but he did so virtually, sending a pre-recorded address.

But the cameo was not advertised by the RJC ahead of time like every one of the other speakers, in what appeared to have been a decision aimed at downplaying the appearance.

“I think the elections Tuesday night in Virginia, New Jersey, on Long Island and across the country showed that it’s about the here and now, and that it’s not about President Trump or anybody else,” said RJC board member Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for George W. Bush.

At the same time, he pushed back against the notion that avoiding talk of Trump was unique to the upcoming midterm, pointing to the 2009 election “when people didn’t want Bush coming to their events.”

“I think you’re going to see a lot of candidates look to the Youngkin model, not just in avoiding Trump, but in messaging that brings voters back home,” Brooks told JTA ahead of the conference.

He also pushed back against the desire to frame the conference through a Trump lens.

“The real stories here are the inroads we’re making with minorities, like the Jewish community, African American community, Hispanic community and the success we’re having bringing suburban women back into the fold,” he said.

According to Brooks, “one of the important takeaways of New Jersey and in Virginia is that you need to be the ‘you candidate,'” as opposed to a pro-or-anti-Trump candidate.

Nonetheless, many of the Republican candidates for Congress attending the conference made a point in identifying themselves exactly as such.

On one end was Marco Garza, a candidate for Texas’s 15th district who called himself the “anti-establishment candidate” and asserted that the Republican Party should be the “MAGA or Trump party.”

But there was also Nevada Senate candidate Bill Hockstedler, who was adamant about his placement “not in the Trump camp.”

“My opponent took his endorsement. He can have it,” Hockstedler told The Times of Israel. “We can’t keep screaming conspiracy theories and thinking that we’re going to win.”

Both Garza and Hockstedler acknowledged that on the issues relating to Israel, there is little that differentiates the various Republican candidates, but while the former wanted to emulate the president, the latter talked about “returning civility to the political discourse.”

Hockstedler was critical of the “Let’s go Brandon” (code for “F**k Joe Biden) chants that were led by many of the student attendees at various points throughout the conference.

The moderate Republican said a majority of people he spoke with felt similarly to him about the need to distance the party from the former president.

One RJC member and longtime Republican donor agreed.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about Trump and wish he would just go away, but they’re afraid of saying so publicly,” the member said on condition of anonymity.

Longtime RJC member Jarrow Rogovin felt differently.

“I wouldn’t call it moving away from Trump because the issues we want to focus on are Trump’s issues,” he said.

At the same time, Rogovin said Republicans would have a better chance of winning in 2024 if they ran another candidate like DeSantis instead of Trump.

“It’s a practical understanding of what it takes to win,” he said.

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