Campaigns & Elections

Why Ronald Lauder is targeting state Senate Democrats

The longtime GOP donor may want to protect Israel allies in the House through redistricting.

Republican donor and and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder at Mar-a-Lago.

Republican donor and and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder at Mar-a-Lago. Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

One man has single-handedly revived Republican hopes of holding their own in the state Senate this November. No, it is not President Donald Trump, whose “law and order” campaign message GOP candidates are emulating. If electoral salvation is coming, it may be through a $1 million donation from longtime conservative donor Ronald Lauder. 

The massive contribution is funding new online ads, produced by a Virginia-registered super PAC called Safer Together New York, that accuse eight Democratic state Senate incumbents of contributing to declining lawlessness in New York City because of their support of criminal justice reforms. The jury is still out on whether new limits on cash bail and changes to discovery laws have in fact caused any rise in the city crime rate, which still remains at historic lows despite an uptick in shooting deaths. 

Issues of policing and pre-trial detention, however, appear to be beside the point from the perspective of Lauder. The former U.S. ambassador under President Ronald Reagen and billionaire businessman is best known for his role as the president of the World Jewish Congress. Until now, he has focused much of his state-level efforts on supporting congressional Republicans like Reps. Lee Zeldin and Elise Stefanik and former Rep. John Faso, who were reliable supporters of the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

State legislative politics has become a major focus for Lauder only now that Democrats are a two seats short of a two-thirds majority in the state Senate. That would allow Albany Democrats to fully control congressional redistricting in New York through a new approach that requires a party to have at least one-third of the seats in either legislative chamber to have a say in the process. In short, his focus may still be on protecting Israel allies in the House – just through a more indirect means. 

Whether this is Lauder’s true motivation in getting behind state GOP efforts is not clear, but Democrats are taking it as a sign that he is aiming to help Republican congressional candidates down the road. "I personally think it’s for redistricting," said one Democratic consultant. Lauder not respond to a request for comment. 

The New York City native is the 76-year-old grandson of European immigrants and has noted how he too might have been a victim of the Holocaust if his family had not immigrated to America, so he takes anti-Semitism personally. Much of his work on this front has been fairly apolitical from a U.S. standpoint, with Lauder using his platform at the World Jewish Congress to condemn anti-Semitic comments by world leaders and other high-profile individuals. 

The heir to the Estée Lauder fortune, however, announced in December 2019 that he would spend $25 million on a sweeping effort to target elected leaders who had records of making controversial comments about Jewish people or Israel. “If it’s a city councilman, or it’s a U.S. senator, or presidential candidate, we’ll know about it,” he told The New York Times at the time. The effort reportedly would be managed by Tusk Strategies, a consulting firm with links to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Democratic pollster Doug Schoen and longtime Republican consultant Nelson Warfielder were also reportedly involved, according to the Times. 

In 2018, Lauder was a big funder of online ads targeting Rep. Antonio Delgado, who expressed reservations about West Bank settlements, during a campaign against Rep. John Faso that helped flip the chamber to Democrats. Lauder has also given to two other New York GOP lawmakers – Rep. Lee Zeldin and Elise Stefanik – who have been vocal supporters of President Donald Trump’s embrace of conservative policies towards Israel like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Electing more Republicans to support Trump, or preventing Palestinian-friendly Democrats from replacing them, would help ensure the federal government continues to support Israeli policy towards the West Bank and Gaza Strip moving forward. These factors have gone a long ways towards making Lauder comfortable with Trump, a fellow Manhattan billionaire, despite a history of controversial comments about Jewish people. 

In Albany, Lauder’s apparent efforts to influence congressional redistricting mean he is not making any new friends with state Democrats who control the state Legislature. For most people that could pose future problems with political advocacy at the state level, but Lauder can lean a longtime relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make sure his state-level efforts are considered.

The Lauders have cultivated ties to the governor. That has included donating 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to the state effort to confront the pandemic this spring as well as funding for free flights for volunteer health care workers coming from out of state. The family business pitched in when the governor was looking for corporate sponsorships of the beleaguered New York City subway system. Lauder and the governor also appeared together during Cuomo’s January 2020 trip to Israel, and the two men highlighted ongoing concerns about the rising number of attacks against Jews in New York City. 

Some of these incidents were blamed on the new limits on cash bail that Democratic lawmakers approved through the budget process – with Cuomo’s approval – in the 2019 state budget. The governor and state lawmakers eventually revised those reforms and approved additional efforts to combat anti-Semitism moving forward. 

In his latest push, however, Lauder is being selective in which Democrats to go after over bail reform. State Sen. Anna Kaplan, who is Jewish, is not among the Democrats targeted by his recent spending, even though she arguably had as much (or as little) to do with the criminal justice reforms as any of her fellow Long Island Democrats. 

Lauder’s biggest bets this election cycle appear to be that $1 million going to Safer Together New York and the $25 million he announced last year to challenge political candidates based on their purported anti-Semitic stances. It makes sense to think that the two efforts are related.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Ronald Lauder is the son of European immigrants who escaped the Holocaust. He is the grandson of European immigrants and has noted how he too might have been a victim of the Holocaust if his family had not immigrated to America.