When Mitt Romney set out to woo Jewish voters, he needed access to the top Jewish donors and leaders. But how?
Romney got himself a shadchan—Jewish matchmaker—of the political variety.
Her name was Lisa Spies. As Romney’s Director of Jewish Outreach, she was at the center of the battle for Jewish votes. Spies remained out of the media spotlight during the campaign, but she shared her thoughts publicly for the first time in the following exclusive interview with JNS.org special contributor Ari Werth.
Werth: Why did Romney ask you to help him with the Jewish community?
Spies: As a Jewish woman, I’m involved with the Jewish community. I grew up in a kosher home in Milwaukee, and I go to services with my husband at Chabad of Washington, D.C. Before joining Romney’s staff, I helped raise millions for GOP senators and congressmen. I’ve also been a consultant to the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Werth: You were one of Romney’s first staff members. What was your initial role?
Spies: I was hired as Jewish outreach director about two years ago. At that point, no other primary candidate had a paid staffer focused on the Jewish community. The first goal was to coordinate meetings and conference calls with Jewish leaders and supporters. We reached out to organizations such as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), ZOA (Zionist Organization of America), OU (Orthdox Union), and RJC (Republican Jewish Coalition).
Werth: Did Romney want to know something specific?
Spies: Yes, he wanted to really understand the different groups within the Jewish community. He didn’t lump everyone together. He got to know there was Chabad, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. We reached out to all of them.
Werth: So Romney was very interested in understanding the Jewish world?
Spies: Yes. In fact, one of Romney’s favorite gifts was a campaign button that said “Vote Romney—It’s a Mitt-zvah!” Many campaign staffers displayed that button on their desks—Christians, Mormons. They didn’t know what the word meant at first, but they asked. I love that they wanted to learn about the word and about kosher food.
Werth: Why their interest in kosher?
Spies: I made sure there was glatt kosher food and prayer services at every donor retreat. We even had to assign an intern to guard the kosher table because the campaign staff liked the kosher food better! Once, Romney stopped by the table and grabbed a cookie. I said, “Governor, this is kosher.” He said, “Oh, I love kosher cookies!” He wasn’t kidding. Before the next event, he asked me if I could get that kosher caterer to come back.
Werth: Did Romney learn anything new about the Jewish vote?
Spies: We had a national conference call with rabbis and Romney assumed Israel would dominate the conversation. It turned out the economy was a major concern. Romney saw that Jewish Americans prioritized domestic issues just like everyone else. That was reflected in our messaging to the community.
Werth: I’m sure there were many memorable moments during the campaign. What was the most touching moment for you?
Spies: Romney delivered a speech outside in Jerusalem, with the walls of the Old City in the background. The sight brought tears in my eyes. I was so touched that he cared enough to be there. Some advisors didn’t want him to go to Israel at that point. They thought the trip was too politically risky, but Romney didn’t ask for their approval to go. And Romney didn’t ask anyone about closing his eyes and putting his hand on the Western Wall. It all came from his heart.
Werth: After the primary, you were involved in launching the Jewish Americans for Romney Coalition. What did this team of VIPs do?
Spies: Our Jewish coalition was amazing. Nobody was just a donor. They were active as surrogates or as grassroots organizers. Some reached out to synagogues. We had conference calls for Jewish voters in target states.
Werth: Who on the coalition was the most involved?
Spies: We had talented leaders like Tevi Troy [a former Bush Administration official] who was the go-to guy for Jewish-related press and policy issues. Tevi was very, very important to us. Also, [former UN Ambassador] John Bolton and Senator Norm Coleman were essential surrogates and advisors.
Werth: Who were the major Jewish donors backing the campaign?
Spies: New York attorney Phil Rosen hosted our first fundraiser for the Jewish community. It’s hard to name everyone else, but just a few a few of the many people who went above and beyond are Mel Sembler, Sam Fox, David Flaum, Cliff Sobel, Ned Siegel, Bobbie Kilberg, Sander Gerber, Lew Eisenberg, Wayne Berman, Simon Falic, Randy Levine, and Sheldon Adelson.
Werth: Adelson donated over $50 million to super PACs supporting Romney and other Republican candidates. Critics say that’s too much influence by one person. What’s your response?
Spies: Sheldon and Miriam Adelson are doing great things for Israel and for the Republican party. When you walk into Yad Vashem, you see his name on the wall as the major benefactor. When young Jews see him, they thank him for their experience in Israel through Birthright. There are many billionaires these days, but only a few that give so much to the causes that they believe in. Whether you agree or disagree with him, you have to say he’s very generous.
Werth: In addition to the Romney campaign’s Jewish outreach, the Republican Jewish Coalition rolled out an unprecedented $5 million campaign to sway Jewish voters who voted for Obama in 2008. What was the impact of both efforts?
Spies: They were successful. Romney received 32 percent of the Jewish vote, and McCain got 22 percent in 2008. A 10-point increase is a big difference.
Werth: Why did seven out of 10 Jews vote for Obama?
Spies: Jews follow tradition, even in politics. And the tradition, for various reasons, is to vote Democrat. Next, we need to explain why it makes sense to break that tradition. It’s a slow process.
Werth: And what is that GOP message to Jewish voters?
Spies: The Republican party is about being a nation of makers, not takers. We should be proud to work and succeed. We believe in individual empowerment and limited government. The Republican party respects religion and is not ashamed to use the word “God” or to protect the sanctity of life.
Spies says she will continue fundraising efforts for the causes she believes in. But right now there’s something more urgent on her agenda. “I’m going to get some rest!” she says.