JOHN MCCAIN WAS down in the polls — and, more troubling, down in projected electoral votes. The Republican needed to pick off a big state that had gone to Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
He narrowed his sights on Pennsylvania. Then narrowed his sights further on Philadelphia’s bedroom suburbs. Then narrowed his sights further: on the area’s roughly 250,000 Jews.
As a constituency, Philadelphia-area Jews are historically Democratic and relatively small (Jews statewide represent just 2.3 percent of the Keystone State population), but they’ve proven occasionally receptive to Republicans and have the power to tilt a close race. McCain dispatched his best friend, Orthodox Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, on a synagogue tour of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and ran ads in Jewish newspapers. Still, polling stubbornly suggested Jews were going for Barack Obama. By the time someone hit SEND on an e-mail letter that would appear in the in-boxes of 75,000 Pennsylvania voters, a desperate situation had grown more desperate still.
The letter, paid for by the state Republican Party, was, putting it mildly, decidedly unoptimistic about an Obama presidency. “In the 5,769 years of our people, there has never been a more important time for us to take proactive measures in order to stop a second Holocaust,” it began, adding that Israel faced “immeasurable threats” from its neighbors, especially Iran. “We did not write this letter to scare you,” the letter’s writers continued, and then promptly did, describing Barack Obama as an advocate of voter-registration fraud, a terrorist associate, and a person who sympathized with agents of radical Islam. “Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision. … Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let’s not make a similar one this year!”
What made the fear-mongering noteworthy was the letter’s three prominent signatories: I. Michael Coslov, a steel magnate and officer in Philadelphia’s Jewish Federation — which advocates for and promotes Jewish causes — who’d donated $25,000 to McCain; real estate developer Mitchell Morgan, who’d hosted a fund-raiser at his Bryn Mawr manse for McCain that hauled in a tidy $1.5 million; and attorney and former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman.
The letter’s vitriol quickly turned it into news. The New York Times cornered Newman in a brief telephone interview, during which she confirmed she’d helped write it before quickly passing the phone to Bryan Rudnick, a Florida campaign operative whom the state Republican Party subsequently blamed and fired for the mess. At the same time, the Obama campaign, through State Representative Josh Shapiro — tapped to handle Obama’s Jewish outreach in the Philly ’burbs — pounced. Obama campaign surrogates stoked the fire by suggesting Coslov had been speaking tacitly on behalf of the entire Jewish Federation. “The feeling among the Federation was that this was intolerable,” says one Federation leader who doesn’t want to be identified talking about the group’s internal affairs. “It was considered by almost everybody who read it to be anywhere from extremely to utterly inappropriate. But then Obama stirred the pot, insisting that the letter was coming from senior ranks at the Federation. That’s how they played it. There was a lot of hand-wringing.”