‘We are very pleased to have Rabbi Rand Paul here,” the senator’s host, Richard Roberts, said as two dozen religious Jews sat down to lunch in Roberts’s home in Lakewood, N.J.
“Senator, we have 6,500 men studying here,” Roberts continued, referring to Lakewood’s Beth Midrash Govoha, one of the largest rabbinical schools in the world. “Can you get me one or two Jews from Kentucky learning here?”
It was a sunny day in mid June and Paul had come to Lakewood, one of the nation’s hubs of Orthodox Judaism, direct from Kentucky before returning to Washington, D.C. In the Orthodox community, Roberts, who last August sold his pharmaceutical company for $800 million, is a good friend to have. “If [Paul] has Dr. Roberts backing him, that is a great imprimatur for everybody in the community here,” Rabbi Zisha Novoseller tells me. “These are movers and shakers in the audience here and he is looking for us to spread the gospel.”
Roberts is not subtle. He introduces the senator to a class of seventh-grade girls who materialize at the luncheon in their school uniforms: “This is Senator Rand Paul, guys, who may be president.”
Paul is laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential bid, and his outreach to voters outside the Republican mainstream is a key part of the effort. It’s especially necessary for Paul. Take this week’s revelation, reported in the Washington Free Beacon, that a Paul aide was, until last year, a radio talk-show host, known as “the Southern Avenger,” who sported a stars-and-bars mask, defended Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, and made controversial remarks about African Americans and Mexican Americans. Add that to Paul’s controversial 2010 remark that the 1964 Civil Rights Act shouldn’t apply to private businesses, and the Kentucky senator certainly faces an uphill climb.
Paul is not the first Republican to court Orthodox Jews, who are more politically conservative than their less observant, overwhelmingly Democratic coreligionists. GOP candidates from George W. Bush to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have done so; even the National Rifle Association is gearing up, with the 2014 midterm election in sight, to lead a group to Israel to tour ancient battlefields and present-day weapons manufacturers. But with this group, Paul begins with another disadvantage: his father. His father Ron Paul, a former Texas congressman and three-time presidential candidate, is widely perceived as being anti-Israel. For the younger Paul, that has been a stumbling block. “The concern in the Jewish community is about his support for Israel,” says Alan Berger, a Manhattan gynecologist who attended the Roberts lunch. “That’s why he’s making these visits.”
But the visit is also part of Paul’s larger strategy to woo minorities into the GOP tent — and his own — with earnest, personal outreach.
Starting at last summer’s Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., Paul has extended his hand to the Orthodox community, meeting with a group of Jewish leaders at the convention and making his first trip to Israel this past January. He has delivered speeches at the historically black institutions Howard University and Simmons College and to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
A bipartisan consensus emerged from the 2012 election that the Republican party has to attract a greater share of the vote from traditionally Democratic blocs, including Hispanics, lest it become obsolete.
Paul’s approach to this issue contrasts with that of one of his potential 2016 primary foes, Florida senator Marco Rubio. Many Republicans, including Rubio and supporters of the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, believe that comprehensive immigration reform is critical to reaching minority voters. Meanwhile, Paul voted against the bill Rubio successfully shepherded through the Senate late last month on the grounds that its border-security provisions are insufficient. Though the legislative and personal approaches are not mutually exclusive, some Republicans argue that immigration reform is both necessary and sufficient to reach Hispanic voters. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, for example, who helped craft the Senate bill, has said that the GOP will face a “demographic death spiral” absent immigration reform; the bill, he claimed, will allow the party to “get reattached to Hispanics.”
The evidence on that front is thin so far. The impact of the immigration bill on Hispanic voters is difficult to measure at this point because the House has not passed it and the president has not signed it into law, but a recent poll showed Rubio doing only one point better than Mitt Romney’s abysmal performance among Hispanics in the 2012 election. At the same time, the latest Rasmussen poll shows his favorability among Republicans has slipped 15 percentage points since February.
Paul is reaching out to Hispanics and other minorities in a different manner. He says he’s on a “speaking tour,” taking the GOP message to new venues, and he faults Republicans for failing to do even a little of this. “Half of it is showing up” in minority communities, he told reporters on a May swing through Iowa, “and I don’t think we’ve been showing up and asking.”
His pitch isn’t solely rhetorical, though. Paul has a legislative pitch tailored to minorities as well. He is planning to pursue legal action against the National Security Agency for what he considers a vast overreach of its surveillance powers and tells those assembled in Lakewood that “Jews should be very concerned about due process and liberty,” and that “blacks should be too.” In his remarks at Howard University, he railed against mandatory minimum sentencing for drug use, which many say disproportionately impacts African Americans and Hispanics. At times, he’s gone further and argued that he doesn’t believe people should be jailed for nonviolent drug crimes. “Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use,” Paul told Fox News. “It would have ruined their lives. They got lucky. But a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky.”
Among the Orthodox in Lakewood, the senator has found a receptive audience. “I think that for politicians in general, certainly for higher office, including a president, the No. 1 thing we’re looking for is integrity, somebody who’s real,” Roberts says. “He’s real, he’s authentic.”
Achieving similar feats with African-American and Hispanic audiences has proved more difficult. (His Howard University speech was interrupted with hostile shouts from the crowd.) But in Lakewood, the senator responded to friendly inquiries about his views on intervention in Syria and Iran (he’s dubious) and on NSA surveillance. “These weren’t Jewish questions,” Berger observed, “These were American questions.”
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.