Nathan Deal makes a play for Jewish voters in Georgia governor race

A few hundred prominent members of Georgia’s Jewish community sipped wine and munched on hummus outside Jerusalem’s Israel Museum as they prepared to return home. But first, they were bid farewell by a surprising guest.

Gov. Nathan Deal strode to the podium amid applause to tell the visitors, who had each paid thousands of dollars for an exclusive tour of the Holy Land, why he picked Israel as his sole election-year trade mission.

“It’s all about building relationships,” the governor said with a smile. “And we have a great record so far.”

Deal’s five-day trip to Israel was designed to court business leaders, but the political resonance is unmistakable. Jewish Georgians have long been reliable Democratic voters, but Deal’s campaign seeks to make inroads this year by tapping a vein of discomfort around Democrat Jason Carter’s campaign.

Former President Jimmy Carter, the Atlanta state senator’s grandfather, upset many in the Jewish community by criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and publicly meeting with Hamas, which opposes Israel’s existence. It’s a rift that many Jews say still hasn’t fully healed despite an apology.

As the younger Carter looks to his party’s base to oust Deal, the governor is aggressively courting Jewish residents still peeved by the grandfather’s position. Although Jewish voters make up only a tiny fraction of Georgia’s electorate, the community makes up an important segment of political donors in a campaign that could cost more than $10 million.

From peace to apartheid?

Jimmy Carter won acclaim while in the White House by brokering the first Israeli-Arab peace treaty, and the former president often says if he could go back, he would bring lasting peace to the entire region. But in recent years, he’s had an often-tense relationship with the Jewish community.

Critics say the elder Carter unfairly compared Israeli treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to the apartheid that once existed in South Africa, and Israeli politicians were furious when he met with leaders from Hamas, considered a terror group by Israel and its western allies.

Jason Carter distanced himself from his grandfather's comments on Israel before running for his Senate seat, and he helped broker the former president's public apology to the Jewish community in 2010. He has several notable Jewish leaders on his team, among them businessman Michael Coles, a former Senate candidate who is co-chairman of his campaign.

But Deal’s aides made no attempt to mask the message that with this visit, the governor is also making a play for Georgia’s Jewish vote. And more than a dozen interviews with Jewish community members suggest the rift is still raw.

One is Ken Stein, an Emory University history and political science professor who is closer to the dilemma than most. He resigned as an adviser to the former president after questioning the accuracy of the elder Carter's book, and he said the schism between the elder Carter and the Jewish community still hasn't narrowed.

Whether that could haunt Jason Carter’s campaign could be a key factor in the November election.

“You have people who are passionately opposed to Jason Carter because of his grandfather and others who say he’s simply not like his grandpa,” Stein said. “And there are those who support him because they don’t like Republicans — not because they like Jason Carter.”

Among those still hurt by the president’s comments is Orit Sklar, a conservative Jewish leader and ardent Deal supporter. She said the elder Carter is flat-out “anti-Israel.”

“If Jason doesn’t make it clear to the Jewish and pro-Israel Christian communities that he holds a different point of view than his grandfather,” she said, “voters will be left to assume that he shares the former president’s twisted worldview.”

Carter is trying to combat that image. His campaign said the Democrat is a “strong advocate” for the Jewish community who enjoys enthusiastic support from Jewish voters. It also recently released a white paper outlining his support for buying Israel bonds, his willingness to lead a trade mission to the Holy Land and his opposition to boycotts and economic sanctions.

Harry Heiman, an Atlanta physician who is hosting a fundraiser targeting primarily Jewish voters for Carter, said the policy paper shows there aren’t significant differences between the two candidates on Israel.

“If President Carter were running for governor of Georgia, it would be relevant. Or if Jason said he supported his grandfather’s position,” Heiman said. “But neither of those are true.”

Prime ministers and kitchen cabinets

The governor has gone to great lengths to emphasize his relationship with the Jewish community. During the five-day trip, he dined with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, prayed at the Western Wall and huddled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He laid a wreath at Israel’s Holocaust memorial and chowed on falafel with Israeli executives.

Whether Deal’s Israel approach translates into more November support is hard to pin down. The governor’s donors include several notable Jewish leaders, including Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and beverage magnate Jay Davis, but they have tended to back conservative causes in general.

What’s clear is Deal’s Israel pivot is resonating in the community. On a windy May evening, Deal went to The Temple, one of Atlanta’s most prominent synagogues, to celebrate Israel’s independence.

Once there, he noted that the last time he was there it was for a particularly feisty 2010 debate against Democrat Roy Barnes. Four years later, he said, "I meet many of you as friends and supporters."

The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg at the event called Deal the “single greatest friend Israel has in the state of Georgia.” (Berg later sent a note clarifying that the comments weren’t intended to be an endorsement.)

How much that could affect November turnout is hard to predict. University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said Deal’s visit could certainly “awaken negative feelings” about the elder Carter among those who factor Israel in their vote.

There is scant polling on Jewish vote in Georgia, but most suggest Jews make up less than 5 percent of the electorate. Nationally, exit polls show Jewish support for President Barack Obama declined from 76 percent to 69 percent.

‘It’s going to be a hurdle.’

Evan Robinson, a 33-year-old financial planner who was in Jerusalem for Deal’s remarks, said he cared little about the elder Carter’s stance. He instead said Deal’s economic policy will likely earn the governor Robinson’s vote.

“What Carter’s grandfather said or didn’t say years ago just doesn’t matter,” Robinson said. “But I do applaud Governor Deal for reaching out to Israel. And that’s a small part of why I’m voting for him.”

Other voters noted that, unlike a vote for a federal lawmaker or a president, a gubernatorial candidate has little say over crafting foreign policy.

Steve Oppenheimer, a retired dentist and a Carter backer, said “it’s going to be a hurdle” for Carter to overcome some of the resistance in the Jewish community. But he said he often reminds Jewish voters that Carter’s grandfather was once a hero in their community.

“People in the community sure were disappointed in some of President Carter’s post-presidency statements on Israel, but those very same people were ecstatic with him when he made peace between Israel and Egypt,” Oppenheimer said. “You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”