|From left, Alan Berger, Mike Huckabee, Marc Berger, and Ben Chouake stand together at the Norpac meeting. Norpac|
The dust is still settling from the 2014 midterm elections, but the race to 2016 is already on. Potential presidential candidates already have started lining up donors.
Norpac, the North Jersey pro-Israel political action committee, regularly holds fundraisers for incumbents. When there is no incumbent, as there will not be in the presidential race in 2016, it raises funds for candidates who have strong records on Israel. On Saturday night, the Englewood-based group held a fundraiser that drew about 35 people and collected at least $40,000 for Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and one-time Republican presidential hopeful who now is a commentator on Fox News.
But – Mr. Huckabee hasn’t declared himself a candidate for 2016 yet, so the fundraiser officially was for Mr. Huckabee’s 501(c)4 non-profit, America Takes Action.
Many candidates have issue-related organizations, such as Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative. Fundraising events for such organizations don’t contribute directly to a political campaign. They do allow the candidate to send a message about which issues are important to him or her, however, and they create opportunities for Norpac’s members to gain access to the potential candidate.
“Who has announced officially yet? Nobody. But everybody’s raising money,” Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, Norpac’s president, said. “You can look at the reality or you can look at the technicality. At the end of the day, you have a lot of people who are exploring their candidacies, trying to raise money.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for whom Norpac held a fundraiser earlier this year, is another example of a potential presidential candidate who is exploring his options. If somebody wanted to throw an event for Hilary Clinton, Norpac would support that as well, Dr. Chouake said.
Dr. Alan Berger of Englewood and his brother, Marc, of New Rochelle, N.Y., organized Saturday night’s fundraiser. “My goal was to have an event to support the man,” Dr. Berger said. “I was in Israel with him in June. He truly loves the Jewish people.”
Mr. Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister. “God’s prophecy is for the Jews to be in Israel, and he’s not broken that covenant,” Mr. Huckabee said on Saturday night. Israel and the United States both were founded in opposition to tyranny, and they have an organic as well as an organizational relationship, he added.
Governor Huckabee has been to Israel some 30 times, but his trips usually have been with Christian groups. The trip this June was a Jewish mission organized by Joe Frager, who organizes the annual Israel Day concert in Central Park after the Salute to Israel Parade. The group met with members of the Knesset, rabbis, the U.S. casino mogul and Republican financier Sheldon Adelson, and the family of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three teens murdered in June by Hamas. Dr. Berger already had known Governor Huckabee for a few years, but the trip strengthened the relationship and gave him the push to organize a fundraiser through Norpac, he said.
“He uses his bully pulpit very effectively to promote our issues,” Dr. Chouake said. “This is important to him, and I’m grateful for it.”
While the former governor’s stand on Israel appears solid, he has also been mired in controversies stemming from his religious perspective. The Council on American Islamic Relations criticized him in 2011, after he suggested Islam considers Jesus an infidel and criticized churches for allowing Muslims to hold worship services there.
Shortly after the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, Mr. Huckabee claimed that America has so many school shootings because it took God out of the school system. In 2008, he founded Huck PAC to help elect conservatives to every level of office. In September, before the midterm elections, he told the 2014 Values Voter Summit, an annual confab in Washington promoting traditional conservative values, that the public should fire politicians who do not hear “God’s heart.”
So how does a Norpac fundraiser work exactly? Norpac does not make donations to candidates’ war chests. It typically uses a bundling process called earmark donations, in which donors write a check to Norpac and specify in the memo line to whom they want it to go. Norpac submits a donation under its name. The campaign knows the donations are because of a specific issue – a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, in Norpac’s case.
“Legally and functionally it’s a donation directly to the candidate,” Dr. Chouake said. Norpac is just a pass through.”
The Federal Election Commission limits election campaign donations to $2,600 per person per candidate per election. If, for example, a candidate is running in the primary and then the main election, the FEC allows a maximum donation of $2,600 to that candidate in each election. Norpac has the same limitations on direct donations, but bundled donations are limited only by the number of donors. If 10 people gave Norpac checks earmarked for a specific candidate, the group can then bundle those donations and make a $26,000 contribution.
“It’s as if they’re giving it directly,” Dr. Chouake said. “For Norpac it’s just a pass through. It does make an impact and helps our cause, because generally speaking if I write a check by myself or any 10 or 100 people write a check by themselves, U.S.-Israel relations shows up a little bit but is generally invisible.”
Norpac will hold a fundraiser for any candidate if one of its members is willing to organize it, as long as the candidate supports the U.S.-Israel relationship. Because the candidates for whom it hosts events and bundles funds is driven by its members, the process is bipartisan, according to Dr. Chouake. A Norpac member may have a good relationship with a candidate, as Dr. Berger has with Mr. Huckabee, and as long as that candidate is supportive of Norpac’s issues, the group will lend its name to the event.
In addition to his some 30 trips to Israel, Mr. Huckabee, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, has been a speaker at many pro-Israel events, Dr. Chouake said. “He uses his bully pulpit very effectively to promote our issues. This is important to him and I’m grateful for it,” he added.
Despite widespread speculation, the former governor has yet to announce his intent to run. Many potential candidates are still testing the waters for a 2016 run, Dr. Chouake said, and these sorts of fundraisers help them promote their issues – and by extension themselves – for a possible run.
“People often are very cynical about it but it’s a huge sacrifice throwing your hat in the ring to run for any office, especially national office,” Dr. Chouake said. “Obviously it’s on the table [for Mr. Huckabee]. He’s really just doing his homework at this point.”