By Ron Kampeas
(JTA) – Ted Cruz came here to woo Republican Jews over the weekend, and in the absence of his opponents for the GOP presidential nomination came away with qualified support based not on who he is but who he is not — Donald Trump. Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich skipped the meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), leaving Cruz as the sole hopeful to address the 560 Jews packed gathered at The Venetian casino resort.
Trump’s high negative approval ratings among women and minorities coupled with his seeming fecklessness on Israel — pledging neutrality one week and support the next — seemed to drive many in attendance to give Cruz a second look after months of shunning the Texas senator for his social conservatism and reputation for not making nice with other Republicans.
No one questioned Cruz’s Israel bona fides, and his impassioned expressions of support for the country earned standing ovations, the longest when he swore to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. But his more important qualification was the possibility that he could beat Trump.
“There was a very clear realization that where we are today, Ted Cruz is our best choice to be the nominee,” Jay Zeidman, a Houston businessman, said after the RJC weekend. He and his father, Fred, had been leading bundlers for the campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “Everyone understands we need to get Cruz to get to the convention to at least stop Trump from getting the nomination.”
One of the more emotional moments came when Joel Geiderman, a Houston doctor and the child of a Holocaust survivor, refuted the TV pundits, including Geraldo Rivera, who said Cruz’s derision of “New York values” was a dog-whistle to antisemites. “We don’t think you have an antisemitic bone in your body,” Geiderman said, stirring a standing ovation.
There were also anxious, awkward questions about his social policies.
“I recognize that is a question that many people here wrestle with,” Cruz said after one of the attendees earned applause for saying Cruz’s hard-line attitudes on abortion and gay marriage were unpopular with many Jewish Republicans.
Cruz said social issues devolve to the states and suggested he would not seek to impose his views as a president. “Nobody wants to elect a hectoring scold,” he said.
He spent Friday at the RJC event meeting privately with fund-raisers. The reception was positive, said Nick Muzin, a senior adviser to the campaign. “On issues that matter most, Ted is on the same side,” Muzin said. “He’s going to do what he says.”
Cruz did not score the prized endorsement of Sheldon Adelson, a major RJC funder and a Republican kingmaker at whose casino the meeting was held. The magnate left the confab early for a wedding.
In the halls, Jewish Republicans were more inclined to talk about whom they did not favor – Trump – than offer a glowing recommendation of Cruz. “No one knows who [Trump] is,” said Ellyn Bogdanoff, a former Florida state legislator who backed Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from her state. “His negatives are extremely high.”
What about Cruz? Bogdanoff thought a moment. “I’d like to see someone who would win,” she said in a tone suggesting she wanted Cruz to convince her.
After Cruz spoke, many in the room appeared reassured. “Ted Cruz helped himself a lot at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting,” Ari Fleischer, an RJC board member and the first-term spokesman for President George W. Bush, said on Twitter. “He’s going to leave here with a lot of support.”