Hedging Presidential Bets in Vegas

The Republican Jewish Coalition has become an audition for 2016 candidates hoping to woo wealthy donors—chief among them billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Updated on

LAS VEGAS—Inside a conference room Friday night at the Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip, top boosters for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker mingled with some of his biggest potential donors, including New York property attorney Phil Rosen and Todd Ricketts, part-owner of the Chicago Cubs. 

About the same time, Jeb “Jebby” Bush Jr., son of another man considering a 2016 presidential bid, socialized with young fundraisers like Jay Zeidman, son of prominent Houston fundraiser Fred Zeidman, at the casino’s Public House bar and restaurant.

And throughout the weekend, behind closed doors in his office, billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, held private meetings with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and a stream of other Republican politicians.

None of these gatherings was on the official agenda for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s leadership conference, a three-day affair that included a poker tournament, golf, speeches, and sessions on topics such as women and youth involvement in elections. The conference began Thursday night with a 75-person dinner on the tennis court of Adelson's new home, carpeted for the occasion. Mitt Romney and Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus spoke at that. And it ended Saturday night with a dinnertime speech by former President George W. Bush. Almost everything was closed to the press, except four speeches Saturday, by Cruz, Perry, Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Ohio Senator Rob Portman.

But the sidebars tell the real story of why the RJC is a force in Republican politics: Its members include some of the party’s biggest donors. 

That means, at least for one weekend a year, Nevada ranks right up there with first-caucus Iowa in political importance. For Cruz and Perry, this was literally true. The two spoke at the RJC conference Saturday morning and hopped on planes for the 1,400-mile trek to Waukee, Iowa, to speak later in the day at an event organized by that state's Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Many RJC donors—among them Paul Singer, Phil Rosen, Ken Abramowitz, and, of course, Adelson—have not made up their minds about which candidate to support in the GOP primary. That’s a big difference from this point in the last presidential campaign cycle. In 2011, Adelson, thanks to a long friendship, was already backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Many of the other coalition members had gravitated to eventual nominee Romney.

The uncertainty gave the weekend the feel of a candidate audition.

“They all came in prepared on the issues,” Andy Abboud, Adelson’s top political adviser, said of the presidential hopefuls visiting with his boss this weekend. “It’s still wide open as far as who he’ll support. There are no puffs of smoke coming from the Venetian just yet.”

Rosen, who co-hosted the Walker party, said he’d essentially narrowed his field to three: Besides the Wisconsin governor and Cruz, he's also looking at Florida Senator Marco Rubio. 

Abramowitz, a New York venture capitalist had a broader list, which he said he’d narrow after some of the debates later this year. “The Republican field looks great,” he said. He likes to spend at least 10 minutes with each presidential candidate during his assessment phase, he said.

Robert Rechnitz, a developer in Los Angeles, said Graham “stands head and shoulders above the rest of the field on foreign policy.” But he, too, would wait for the debates before writing any checks, he said. “I admire a lot of the candidates. We'll see how they handle questions during the debates.”

No contender seemed better represented than Jeb Bush, who spoke at the conference last year. Bushworld staples Fred Karlinsky, Keith Sonderling, Ronnie Krongold, Charlie Spies, the Zeidmans, and Karen Unger pounded the pavement—er, circa-2003-carpeted hallways—promoting their man. 

They encountered occasional turbulence. Angst remains about Bush's decision to include James Baker as one of his foreign policy advisers. “There are many megadonors who will not be with him because of that,” said Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. Because ZOA is a nonprofit advocacy group, Klein said he won’t back any particular candidate. 

George W. Bush, who delivered his remarks in a question-and-answer session, predicted his brother would face challenges as a presidential candidate because he is part of a political dynasty, according to three attendees who did not want to be named because the event was supposed to be off the record. The former president praised the 2016 GOP field as strong, the attendees said, while acknowledging that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, would be “formidable.” He also weighed in on nuclear negotiations with Iran—a hot topic during the entire conference—by warning that once sanctions are lifted, the U.S. loses all leverage. 

Much of the Bush contingent flew directly from Vegas to Miami for a financial powwow convened by the as-yet undeclared candidate.

Regardless of the eventual 2016 nominee, this group of Republican Jewish donors is committed to helping their party win back the White House. David Flaum, RJC chairman, encouraged the attendees to “get behind the candidate and do everything you can to help.”

Citing a record number of attendees at the conference, more than 700, each giving at least $1,000 to the RJC, and a record membership of 45,000, Flaum said the coalition will wage a “well, well-funded campaign. We're accumulating.”

(Updates with comments said to be made by George W. Bush in the fifteenth paragraph.)
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