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Analysis

Republican Jewish Coalition’s upcoming confab aims to thread needle on Trump

Group says conference will see party pushing model for candidates that proved successful in recent Virginia governor race, where GOP candidate embraced Trump, but from a distance

Then-US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting, on Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas, NV. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Then-US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting, on Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Las Vegas, NV. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

JTA — The Republican Jewish Coalition’s 2020 conference was one of the last major Jewish conferences to be canceled as the pandemic set in — the group had gone so far as to order branded hand sanitizer.

The 2021 conference, starting on Friday, is one of the first to resume, and is doing so amid a great deal of change relevant to the group’s agenda. There was the election of United States President Joe Biden last fall and the tumultuous transition as Donald Trump exited the White House while remaining a looming figure in the Republican Party.

Then there was the death, in January, of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who was a major funder of Republicans and of pro-Israel causes, and whose Las Vegas properties have long hosted the RJC convention.

And then, this week, there was the strong — and, to many, surprising — showing by Republican candidates across the country in local and statewide elections. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican businessman, pulled off an upset win in the race for Virginia governor, and a Republican nearly ousted New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy.

“Registration is definitely getting a pop now as a result,” Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He expected more than 700 people to be in attendance, half the number of previous years, but unexpectedly high given the reluctance to travel while the coronavirus pandemic and some of its restrictions are still in place.

It’s not just the fact of Youngkin winning, but how he won that’s intriguing Republicans: Youngkin embraced some of Trump’s policies and rhetoric, particularly related to education, but kept the former president at a distance, refusing to allow him to campaign for him in the state. (Trump spoke by phone to two rallies.)

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

“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 said.

A lot of those would-be messengers are angling now for the 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of them will be there — including, via video, Trump himself, who has had an at-times uneasy relationship with the RJC.

Prospective presidential contenders appearing in person include Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president; Nikki Haley, a Trump ambassador to the United Nations; Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a one-time Trump acolyte; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the first 2016 candidate to drop out and endorse Trump; and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who tangled with Trump until the bitter end in 2016 before reconciling.

With the exceptions perhaps of DeSantis and Pompeo, each of these figures has had fraught relationships with Trump. Haley distanced herself from Trump after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, only to try to walk back her dissent as Trump survived his second impeachment and maintained his grip on the party. Pence was loyal to Trump until he would not accede to the former president’s pleadings to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential elections.

Then-White House chief of staff John Kelly (center left), then-US vice president Mike Pence (second from left), then-US ambassador to the United Nation, Nikki Haley (second from right), and then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, listen as then-US president Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, on Tuesday, September 25, 2018 at UN headquarters. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Not coincidentally, the RJC has deep and uncomplicated relationships with old-school Republicans like Haley and Pence, who favor robust American internationalism. The group’s relationship with Trump, by contrast, is quite complicated: it praised him effusively for policies that aligned US policy with Israel’s right-wing, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory and pulling out of the Iran deal, but was unsettled by his flirtations with the US far-right.

The group also remains a space for the Trump-skeptical. Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina who is a robust Trump critic, will be speaking.

Brooks said the conference would offer a masterclass in how to win back Congress next year, taking its cue from Youngkin, who focused on parents’ anger at closed schools and at exaggerated and often false claims that schools were incorporating radical teachings on race in their curricula.

“Americans care about jobs, America’s weakness after Afghanistan, COVID. They want to be involved in their children’s education,” he said. “Education is a critical hot-button issue in the Jewish community.”

Then-US president Donald Trump receives a menorah from Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chief Executive and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson (left), and his wife, Miriam Adelson (right), at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, on December 7, 2019. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The conference will take place as it has in past years at the Venetian resort, part of Adelson’s casino empire. His widow, Miriam Adelson, is still deeply involved in political giving, and Brooks said she would speak at a tribute to Sheldon Adelson on Saturday night.

“The Adelson legacy is one of the most important in the history of the Jewish people,” he said. “Miri and Sheldon were a team and that will continue forward.”

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