By Eric Cortellessa
WASHINGTON — Had Matt Brooks followed his mother’s wishes, he’d now be a cardiothoracic surgeon. As a student at Brandeis University in the 1980s, he wanted to do precisely that. But an intervention came along that derailed those plans. And that intervention was a man named Jack Kemp.
In college, Brooks caught the bug. A political science major with plans to go to medical school, he re-chartered the campus’ College Republicans chapter, which had atrophied at his heavily liberal school, and became a conservative campus leader. Eventually, Brandeis offered him a grant to experience an internship in Washington the summer before his senior year. His assignment was to serve in congressman Kemp’s US House office.
Odd for an intern-House member relationship, the two formed something of a friendship.
“We really hit it off,” Brooks said of the late Buffalo Bills quarterback turned icon of the conservative movement. “He became my mentor, he was my rabbi, he was my friend, and he was somebody who had an incalculable impact of my life.”
A year later, after Brooks returned to school, Kemp reached out with a request: He wanted Brooks to hold off from going to medical school for a year to work on his 1988 presidential campaign. “Jumped at that,” Brooks said.
Kemp would go on to lose the GOP nomination to George H.W. Bush, but Brooks never went back to study medicine. Instead, he became a lifelong Republican political operative.
“One of the hardest things I ever had to do was call my mother and tell her I wasn’t going to go to medical school,” Brooks recently told The Times of Israel.
In the political space, Brooks took on a highly specific task: He wanted to make more American Jews, who have historically been overwhelmingly Democrats, into Republican voters.
After the Kemp campaign ended, he joined what was then called the National Jewish Coalition — now the Republican Jewish Coalition — as its political director. He’s been there more than 30 years and is now its executive director.
In that role, Brooks hasn’t shied away from controversy. Today he puts all his faith and energy into trying to sell American Jews on a US president who is as intensely polarizing as he is unpopular with the US Jewish electorate, according to recent polling.
Seventy-seven percent of American Jews disapprove of the president, according to a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee.
What’s more, 73% of US Jews feel less safe than two years ago — following deadly anti-Semitic attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway — with 60% saying they thought that Trump “bears at least some responsibility” for those attacks, found another survey. According to that survey, commissioned by the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute, 71% of Jews also said they disapprove of the way Trump has handled anti-Semitism more broadly. (The same May survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, found that Israel ranked at the bottom of American Jews’ policy priorities heading into 2020.)
Yet Brooks says he’s confident that Trump will help him make inroads in his efforts to turn the historically blue Jewish group red.
The reasons for his optimism, he explained, are manifold: from Trump’s Israel policies — such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights — to changes in American Jewish demographics, including the growth of the Orthodox population, which tends to be more politically conservative.
The RJC — which has offices in DC, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Florida — has had a unique relationship with the president since he’s taken office. At its recent confab last spring, both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke. Not even the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been able to get both offices to attend a policy conference in the past three years.
But now, Brooks is planning on a mobilization effort for 2020, with targeted outreach in select states. He wants Jewish voters to tip the scales for Trump in the states that matter the most in the electoral college.
While he recognizes that it’s unlikely that a majority of US Jews will vote Republican in the next election — 76% of US Jews voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms — he thinks that enough may pull the lever for Trump to make a material difference to the outcome.
Below is an edited and condensed version of a conversation between Brooks and The Times of Israel in the RJC’s Washington offices, in which Brooks discussed his plans for 2020, the president’s standing in the US Jewish community, widespread criticism from Jewish leaders about Trump’s conduct, and what the man is really like, one-on-one.
You’ve said you plan to gain Jewish support for the Republican Party in the 2020 election. How?
There were some stories that leaked out following our board meeting a couple of months ago in Las Vegas that we were preparing to spend upwards of $10 million on the outreach effort for the Jewish community in this election cycle. I’m not going to confirm or deny that. I will tell you that there is a strong commitment on the part of our board and organization to have a significant effort — to undertake what will probably be the largest effort ever done in terms of outreach to the Jewish community.
I think we have an unbelievable opportunity, given how strong this president has been on a wide range of issues that are of concern to the Jewish community. As we showcased in our Vegas meeting right before the president spoke, we had four former Jewish Democrats — one guy was an organizer and campaign worker for Barack Obama, another was a cantor at his shul in South Florida, a grandmother, and a nurse. All of them had been lifelong Democrats and have left the Democratic Party. I think their stories are typical of a lot of folks who are leaving. So we’re going to be very active in this election cycle. Obviously, we hope to do so in a smart, strategic, targeted, focused way that will have the maximum impact in terms of increasing President Trump’s share of the Jewish vote.
Are there specific states you’re going to be focused on?
It’s a moving target right now. We’re planning a very wide map and we’ll ultimately refine that down. Usually at the top of the list is Ohio, but there are a lot of smart people saying that Ohio is off the table for the Democrats this time around and that Republicans are going to carry it.
[We’re not looking at] New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. It won’t stay that way. Once it comes time for implementing and executing, we’ll winnow it down in a way that is most efficient and effective so we’re not wasting money in places where we’re either not going to win, or where we have no chance of winning.
A lot of people say Donald Trump is a disadvantage to winning Jewish votes. Why do you think he is an advantage?
I think people who say he is a disadvantage to winning Jewish votes don’t understand the dynamic of what’s going on in the Jewish community right now. More so, they don’t fully understand the dynamic of what’s doing on in the Democratic Party right now.
If you’re a center-right, center-left Jewish Democrat, you look at what is happening in terms of the support for Israel declining among rank-and-file Democrats, and the entire Democratic establishment pandering more and more to the progressive left-wing and the rise of [Congresswomen] Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. And they’re symptoms of the problem. They’re not the big problem. The Democrats want to say it’s just three bad apples. And to their credit, Jewish Democrats have been critical of them.
But it’s broader than that. When asked, do you stand with Israel, the Palestinians, or are you neutral, 80% of Republicans say they stand with Israel. Less than a majority [of Democrats] say they stand with Israel. The rest are neutral, or say they stand with the Palestinians. That’s a problem.
I think that center-left, open-minded Democrats are growing increasingly uncomfortable with what’s happening in the Democratic Party. For those who care about Israel, who care about strong national security, in the mold of guys like [former US Senator] Joe Lieberman and others, there’s only one choice. And that choice is Donald Trump.
What gives you evidence that Jewish voters are actually moving in that direction? Is it mostly anecdotal? Is there any data or polling that shows Jewish voters are disenchanted with the Democratic Party?
Well, for now, it’s anecdotal. And the beauty of elections are that we will find out on Election Day whether we’re right or wrong. We haven’t started any of our [internal] polling yet. I suspect that in the coming weeks or months we’re going to start ratcheting it up. But I’m on the record predicting that Donald Trump will get more Jewish voters in 2020 than he did in 2016.
What is success for you? Historically, the vast majority of Jews vote for Democrats. It was 71% who voted for Clinton, and it usually hovers around that. So is success for Republicans doing less badly with Jewish voters than they usually do?
We think of this as a very long-term project. We’re always talking about making incremental gains. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an election where we’re going to wake up one day and Republicans get 50% or more of the Jewish vote. But are we chipping away? Are we making inroads?
There’s a lot of encouraging indicators. First of all, we do very well among Orthodox voters. Orthodox voters are the fastest growing segment of the Jewish community. We do very well among young voters, which is very counter intuitive. We’re actually doing better with young people in the polling that’s been out there.
Obviously, the most entrenched voting bloc within the Democratic base are older voters. Seventy-five and up, we lose 80-20, 90-10; we just get wiped out in that demographic. But the reality is, that demographic is shrinking. If you look to the future, we’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing among younger voters and the rise of the Orthodox.
So you ask what success is. Success is two things: that President Trump wins re-election, and that he does so in a way that shows that there’s been an increase in support in the Jewish community for him.
How do you respond to assertions, like from your counterpart at the Jewish Democratic Council of America, that Trump is antithetical to Jewish values?
I would be curious which values Trump stands against of in the Jewish community. The Jewish value of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving our embassy? Is it the value that says that we entered into a bad deal with Iran? Is it the Jewish value that recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights? Is it consistent with Jewish values when you have leading Democrats running for president who call the prime minister of Israel a racist?
I think that is a way on their part to deflect. If you peel back a bit, there’s no substance to what they are saying.
What about the targeting of people who are vulnerable, like through his immigration policy and [separating families]?
Every successive administration from Bill Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama [has] realized that we have a crisis at our border. Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi, have spoken out, until Trump was elected, that we need to secure our borders. Now all of a sudden, they are opposed to it because it’s President Trump.
There’s a growing constituency of Democratic activists and advocacy groups who are more critical of Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the party establishment. Do you think this will flare up into an internecine, intra-party dispute in 2020?
I suspect it will. You have Bernie Sanders calling the democratically elected prime minister of Israel — the people’s choice — a racist. You have [South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete] Buttigieg giving a speech where he says he’s going to utilize the power of American foreign aid to try to effect policy decisions that he wants to see with regard to Israel. You have almost every one of the Democratic candidates, with the exception of Biden, do those mini-interviews with The New York Times, and when they’re asked whether Israel has human rights problems, almost every one of them said that Israel has human rights problems.
The New York Times reporters said they expected the candidates to be much more critical of Israel than they ultimately were, that these criticisms were really quite mild.
What’s your point? That they’re only slightly critical and not fully critical. I think that’s a distinction without a difference. First of all, I don’t care what the reporter says. His opinion’s meaningless. The point is these guys have all gone on the record as saying Israel is a violator of human rights standards.
You had both Trump and Vice President Pence come to your confab this spring. You’ve met with Trump more than once. What have you learned about him from your personal interactions that you think most American Jews don’t know?
One-on-one, in serious conversations, I am impressed with his thoughtfulness, I am impressed with his engagement, I am impressed with his commitment. The one thing about Donald Trump is that he’s never ambiguous about how he feels. That’s a great help to him. He’s not somebody who’s going to get distracted or confused. He knows where his values are and he knows what’s important to him and where he stands.
So I’m always impressed with his passion and commitment, and his love for Israel when we talk about it. It’s not just stepping up in front of a stage at the RJC in front of 2,500 people, it’s how he is behind the scenes as well