LAS VEGAS — For some American Jews, the time has come to put their chips on the table and show their cards.
Jewish Republican activists descend upon the nation's gambling mecca Thursday for the Republican Jewish Coalition's spring meeting, a gathering that has become an annual rite for aspiring GOP presidential candidates looking to woo the relatively small yet rather influential community of conservative Jewish campaign donors and bundlers. This week's confab is no different; at least two 2016 contenders are speaking and every White House hopeful will have an operative working the room.
But this year's gathering, kicking off with a private dinner for coalition leaders with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, occurs amid heightened friction between President Obama and Israel over the administration's determination to reach détente with Iran. Coalition officials say that has boosted expected spring meeting attendance 75 percent over last year and 125 percent above 2013 as Jews anxious about the rift with Jerusalem and Obama's emerging nuclear deal with Tehran are driven to become political partisans.
"How the relationship between the U.S. and Israel has evolved under Obama's presidency — it hurts me deeply," said Lisa Karlovsky, a 43-year-old industrial psychologist from Scottsdale, Ariz., who along with her husband is new to the coalition and attending her first spring meeting. "We wanted to get involved."
The Republican Jewish Coalition boasts 40,000 members and 45 chapters nationwide. Mark McNulty, the coalition's spokesman, gave Obama primary credit for the uptick in interest in the organization. "This president and his administration have antagonized the Jewish community and attempted to isolate Israel both abroad and here at home," he said.
American Jews, generally unified in their hawkish, pro-Israel views regardless of ideology and party affiliation, tend to be liberal and among the most loyal voting blocs in the Democratic Party's diverse coalition. Recent Gallup polling suggested that Jewish support for Democrats has dipped some, possibly because of Obama's perceived hostility toward Israel and coziness with Iran. But the drop was hardly steep enough to worry presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The January Gallup survey found that roughly 30 percent of American Jews identified as Republicans, about average for this voting bloc but up from 22 percent in 2008, the year Obama, then an Illinois senator, won the White House. About 60 percent of Jews identified as Democrats in that poll, down from 71 percent in 2008, a banner election year for the Democratic Party. Among "highly religious" Jews, 42 percent consider themselves Republicans.
Still, it's possible that Obama's policies and critical tone with Jerusalem could fuel an increase in Republican activism and campaign cash in 2016, awakening Jews inclined to vote GOP but until now did little else besides pull the lever. In interviews with the Washington Examiner, new Republican Jewish Coalition members, self-described centrists or social liberals who vacillated from election to election, said that is how it happened for them.
"I still consider myself a moderate," said Tali Raphaely, 42, a Miami attorney and owner of a nationwide property title company headed to Las Vegas for his first major Coalition event.
David Volosov, 30, vice president at a behavioral health care company, said he voted for Romney in 2012 and expressed an interest in a few of the GOP's 2016 contenders, including Ted Cruz, even though his own liberal philosophy on social issues clashes with the Texas senator's social conservatism. But the resident of Silver Spring, Md., near Washington, said it was Obama's antipathy to Israel and weak foreign policy broadly that transformed him from a voter to an activist.
"The situation in the Middle East is getting more and more tense by the day. I think Israel is the solution and I think the Republican Party understands that," Volosov said. "So I felt like it was time to get off the sidelines and really participate."
The Republican Jewish Coalition's annual spring meeting officially begins Friday, at The Venetian, an upscale hotel and casino owned by coalition board member and mega GOP Jewish donor Sheldon Adelson. A host of Republican VIPs are set to address the group, including 2016 contenders Cruz and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas; Indiana Gov. Mike Pence; Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio; House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio; and former President George W. Bush.
But the real action won't be inside the ballroom.
Rather, it will occur in hallways and lobbies nearby, and in private hotel suites, as operatives for the dozen or so presidential hopefuls who are parachuting in attempt to woo some of the country's most influential, well-connected, Republican Jewish donors — chief among them, Adelson. The casino magnate, 81, single-handedly kept former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alive in the 2012 GOP primary by funneling $20 million into a pro-Gingrich super PAC.
By the end of the 2012 cycle, Adelson had invested nearly $100 million total in the GOP cause.
Indeed, even with all of this Jewish GOP money in one place, some have nicknamed the spring meeting simply the "Adelson primary." With a large field of heavyweights that are mostly united in their opposition to Obama's Iran deal framework and commitment to Israel's security and special ally status, Adelson and the other money players could choose to back multiple primary contenders for the time being, one Jewish GOP source said.
"With such a deep bench, nobody wants to choose," this insider said.
In addition to the networking opportunities, facilitated by golf and poker tournaments and a scotch tasting, members will participate in policy breakout sessions. Topics include combatting the move on U.S. college campuses to pressure university endowments to divest from Israeli assets; Israel's "vibrant" economy and start-up culture; and empowering women in politics, featuring Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo.
Top Republicans scheduled to participate in the spring meeting include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California; House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce of California; Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus; and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is preparing to launch a presidential bid.