When Senator Rand Paul descended onto the Senate floor earlier this month to promote his legislation to end foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, he stood next to an outsize poster showing the names and faces of three Israeli teenagers who had just been killed.
"Killed," Paul emphasized, "in cold blood."
Not long after Paul stopped speaking, his political operation swung into action. His top strategist, Doug Stafford, packaged the speech into an email that landed in the in-boxes of a clutch of influential Jewish and pro-Israel Republicans across the country.
The episode—the pro-Israel bill, the impassioned speech, the rapid dissemination—is a small window into the early and aggressive Jewish-outreach campaign of the junior senator from Kentucky with his eye on the White House in 2016. As Paul lays the groundwork for a presidential bid—he's already hired two top Iowa Republicans and one veteran New Hampshire strategist—few constituencies have received more attention than Jewish Republicans and pro-Israel advocates.
Rand Paul, who has said he knew only a single Jewish family growing up in small-town Texas, has even found his own rabbi (one he shares with Rush Limbaugh) to help him navigate the cultural divide.Paul has donned a yarmulke and danced to Hebrew songs. He has prayed at the Western Wall and visited a prominent New Jersey yeshiva (a religious school where a major GOP contributor served as his tour guide). He's dialed into one of the country's most popular Jewish radio programs and held off-the-record conference calls with Jewish leaders across more than 30 states. He has introduced pro-Israel legislation (title: the "Stand With Israel Act"), speechified about it in the Senate, and, relentlessly, sought a private audience with the wealthiest and most influential Jewish Republicans in the nation.
"Clearly, he is making a concerted effort and a sincere effort to really build relationships," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the influential Republican Jewish Coalition, a political group that aims to represent Jewish interests within the GOP.
The charm offensive has two goals at its core. The first is to try to establish Paul in the foreign-policy mainstream of Republicanism, particularly on the signal issue of Israel, which is of key importance to both Jewish voters and evangelical Christians. The second is to win over, or at the least neutralize, the moneyed class of hawkish Israel defenders—free-spending billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer chief among them—who Paul's advisers know represent among the most significant impediments to his becoming the party's next standard-bearer.
Paul's labors are especially critical given that he has begun the 2016 presidential sweepstakes with a deep deficit of support among pro-Israel advocates—an inheritance from his father, three-time presidential candidate and former Representative Ron Paul, a man viewed with suspicion at best by much of the community. "Pro-Israel people have always felt that Ron Paul is beyond hostile to Israel; he's hostile to Jews as well," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel lobbying group. "So clearly this concerns Rand Paul because people assume, like father like son."
"It's unfair," Klein added, "but it's a natural human reaction."
Paul's team views much of the outreach as correcting his record. "The only thing that we can do is go out and talk about what Rand believes and make sure that people hear his real positions, not others' mischaracterizations of his positions," Stafford said. "Things about politics and money, those things will fall where they will."
Kevin Madden, who was a senior strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns, said Paul has been the candidate most committed to defining himself for donors, power brokers, and political influencers. "If we were ranking potential 2016 prospects in terms of who is doing the most legwork right now, I think you'd have to rank Rand Paul first," Madden said.
Those being lavished with attention certainly appreciate it. "He was patient, he didn't rush me, he really spent time with me," Klein said of a 45-minute sit-down in Paul's Capitol Hill suite earlier this year. But that only goes so far.
"My discussions with others about Paul, because he's trying to speak to Jewish groups and doing things that pro-Israel people appreciate, people are saying we should give him a second chance and rethink what our impressions were of Rand Paul. So I think he is making inroads," Klein said. "That doesn't mean people are going to be necessarily comfortable."
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The Group Paul has most aggressively courted is the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose board of directors reads like a who's who of big GOP contributors—Adelson, Singer, and former Ambassadors Mel Sembler and Sam Fox, among many others. "He has made a significant effort since coming to the Senate, both to establish his own identity and to get to know the folks in our organization and have a real, frank, open, and candid conversation about the issues," Brooks said.
Last year, Paul met with the RJC's board for a question-and-answer session in the Washington offices of Hogan Lovells that stretched for more than an hour. Lately he's been targeting influential members, one by one. Over the weekend, Isaac "Yitz" Applbaum, an RJC board member who coauthored an op-ed in Foreign Policy last fall with Paul titled "Peace Through Strength," hosted an event for Paul in the Bay Area.
Lunch was followed by a lengthy phone call in which Zeidman and his son, Jay, the national cochair of George P. Bush's Maverick PAC, pressed Paul on his posture toward Israel. Consider Zeidman's fears allayed. "I didn't have any reservation afterward introducing him and exposing him to my fellow Jewish Republicans," he said. "I think that he is having a great deal of success.""I needed to know where he stood" on Israel, said Fred Zeidman, a top Jewish GOP fundraiser who also sits on the RJC's board and with whom Paul shared an intimate lunch in Houston in February. "I know what happens when America doesn't pay attention or gets apathetic," said the former chairman of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Council.
Not everyone, however, is so persuaded.
"I'm not buying it," said Elliott Abrams, who served as a top national-security adviser to President George W. Bush and is now a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. Paul and Abrams had a private sit-down on Capitol Hill last fall. "You can't be an isolationist and credibly pro-Israel. The idea that you're isolationist for every other country and every other issue in the world except Israel just is not persuasive." (Paul, for his part, vigorously rejects the "isolationist" label.)
Stafford said Paul is reaching out to many constituencies, not just Jewish and pro-Israel leaders, including fiscal hawks, gun enthusiasts, and African-Americans. "This is not a one-off thing where we're just targeting one community," he stressed.
Still, the math is daunting if Paul finds himself on the wrong side of the biggest-spending Jewish Republicans. Singer, whom Paul met with last year, has established himself as one of the most influential GOP moneymen in America. Meanwhile, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, poured $93 million into super PACs in the 2012 election, making them the largest political financiers in the nation. In the GOP presidential primary alone, the Adelsons spent $15 million against Romney and for Newt Gingrich. Paul would have to raise $200,000 every week between now and the beginning of 2016 to match the $15 million that Adelson can stroke in a single check.