WASHINGTON — For Jewish voters in Florida deeply interested in U.S. policy in Israel and the Middle East, Donald Trump’s presidency has posed something of a conflict.
His strong stance for Israel and decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem were praised by Republicans and Democrats across the state.
But his rhetoric after the 2017 Unite the Right rally — Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” after a neo-Nazi drove a car into counter-protesters and attendees chanted “Jews will not replace us” — was widely condemned.
And during his term, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic violence, with Jews and Jewish institutions the target of 57.8% of religion-based hate crimes in 2018, according to the FBI. Just this week, Florida Democratic Jewish Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch publicly denounced attacks in New Jersey and New York.
Now, Iran has complicated the picture even more.
Authorizing the strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and then vowing to use sanctions instead of further violence to punish Iran after it attacked U.S. bases in Iraq could help Trump’s standing with Jewish voters in Florida — and around the country — who care deeply about Israel and Middle Eastern affairs.
“I think the things that Trump has done as it relates to Israel and as it relates to Iran gains him votes from 2016,” said Evan Ross, a Miami-based Democratic operative and lobbyist. “If you’re specifically talking about Jewish voters, Trump got 27 percent of the Jewish vote in Florida [in 2016]. I think he’s going to do better than that in 2020.”
That doesn’t mean Trump will win the Jewish vote in Florida, but the margin of defeat matters.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ran a 2018 campaign that attacked his rival, Democrat Andrew Gillum, for his connections to groups that are critical of Israel. DeSantis also frequently discussed his pro-Israel work as a member of Congress.
“In 2018, Ron DeSantis ran for governor on a fantastic, pro-Israel record. He was able to leverage some affiliations Andrew Gillum had into convincing voters not to vote for him,” Ross said. “If Gillum got those votes, he’s governor of Florida today.”
Jews represent 4% of the voter population in Florida, compared to 2% nationally. The margin of victory in the last two presidential elections in Florida has been less than 1.2%. That makes even marginal shifts among Jewish voters significant, and potentially valuable for Trump’s reelection bid in a must-win state.
But Ross and other Democratic supporters of Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani said Trump must present a long-term and thought-out strategy for dealing with Iran. Without it, he risks alienating the centrist Jewish voters who did not support the Iran Deal, an international agreement where Iran had economic sanctions lifted in exchange for limiting certain nuclear activities negotiated by former President Barack Obama, but who are also wary of escalating conflict with Iran.
Trump’s decision to walk away from the Iran Deal in 2018 was cheered by Florida Republicans but opposed by Democrats, including some who originally opposed the deal.
“Jewish voters, like all Americans, hate terrorists,” said Aaron Keyak, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council who helped lead independent campaign efforts targeting Florida’s Jewish vote in the last three presidential races. “The question for this president is whether he’s prepared for what’s next. There’s nothing in his record that demonstrates he is ready, and that’s fundamentally the problem: whether it’s domestic or foreign policy, he is erratic.”
Harley Lippman, a Democratic Jewish donor from Miami and former Hillary Clinton advisor, said there are a “middle group” of Jews in Florida that Trump will target in the 2020 election.
“They could be influenced, they’re more open-minded,” Lippman said. “Especially the positions we’re seeing from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it’s troubling for Jews and for Israel.”
He cautioned that calling the decision to kill Soleimani an “assassination,” as some Democrats like Sanders and Warren have done, risks alienating centrist-leaning Jewish voters in Florida. Other Democrats running for president have rejected the characterization of Soleimani’s death as an assassination, questioning Trump’s long-term strategy but praising Soleimani’s demise.
Lippman said Democrats should “do their due diligence” to ensure that Trump’s actions on Iran are constitutional and that Congress is informed of the administration’s long-term strategy.
“There is a middle ground,” Lippman said. “I think it could absolutely make a difference if Trump’s bet is correct. Iran is very smart. They invented the game of chess and they take the long view so we don’t know what may come next but if all they do is fire some missiles in the desert, it’s a big win for Trump.”
Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, who once served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran and represents a competitive district with a sizable Jewish population, said she’s heard from Jewish constituents who are worried about their safety and the safety of Israel after Soleimani’s death.
In the coming weeks, Shalala said, it’s essential for Congress to be formally consulted before Trump takes any further action on Iran, so the House and Senate can determine if his long-term plan is sensible. Without a clear strategy, Shalala said Trump has no hope of picking off Jewish voters who are undecided in 2020.
“You don’t win anyone in my community back by making Americans and my community feel less safe,” Shalala said. “We are less safe than when the president made his decision without a grand strategy.”
Republicans didn’t come close to winning the Jewish vote nationwide in 2018, even after Trump relocated the U.S. embassy in Israel and withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. In the midterm elections, 79% of the community voted for Democrats , and in a poll conducted one month prior to the election, 70% said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the Iran deal.
However, extrapolating national trends of Jewish voters to predict what will happen in Florida is nearly impossible, because the four states where Jews are a larger percentage of the population than Florida: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland are solidly Democratic. Florida polls rarely, if ever, conduct specific surveys of Jewish voters because of the time and expense involved to select a small slice of the electorate, rather than larger groups such as Hispanics.
“I’ve never seen a poll in Florida on how Jewish voters believe so I think a lot of it is perception,” Republican Sen. Rick Scott said. “When I talk to people I know who are Jewish in the state, they didn’t like Obama’s Iran deal. They are very supportive that Trump moved the embassy...and he has been a good friend to Israel.”
Scott said that at a closed-door lunch this week, Senate Republicans passed around an op-ed by former Democratic-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who argued that Democrats should support the Soleimani strike.
But Shalala said if Democrats show Jewish voters they support Israel, have a consistent policy approach toward Iran and strongly condemn any instances of anti-Semitism, they will be rewarded at the ballot box.
“It doesn’t start or end with Israel. It starts with our deep respect for the Jewish people, for the Jewish religion and our vehement, strong statements and action on anti-Semitism,” Shalala said.
McClatchy DC White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.