GOP convention watch: Adelson vs. Koch brothers?

October 30, 2013

The “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign stands along the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Updated with a statement from a Koch Industries spokesman.

No one gave more money to Republican and conservative causes in the 2012 election cycle than Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, and Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists. Now, the trio seem to be competing for the right to host Republicans from across the country in their back yards in 2016.

Both Las Vegas and Kansas City, Mo., have begun to form organizations that will push to host the quadrennial convention, signing top operatives and raising money in hopes of convincing the Republican National Committee they have the capacity and ability to pull off the event.

Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., calls Las Vegas home. The Koch brothers are co-owners of Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kan., about 200 miles down the Interstate from Kansas City. All three billionaires are said to support holding the convention on their home turf.

On Tuesday, a group of Las Vegas political activists and businesses said they were forming a 501(c)(3) organization to begin raising money for the convention effort. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) will chair the group, which operates independently from the state Republican Party. And Adelson, who owns several hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas strip, wants the RNC’s business.

“We’re very excited about it. We’re 100 percent behind it and think it’s a great opportunity for Las Vegas and Nevada, and as a swing state, it’s important,” Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations for Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Adelson’s chief political adviser, said in an interview. “Some other cities may have started earlier, but when it comes to infrastructure and hotels and entertainment venues, no city is better prepared than Las Vegas.”

Kansas City has formed its own host committee, which is being run by longtime GOP operative Cathy Nugent.

“Right now, what we’re doing is just head down, working on different parts of the bid,” Nugent said in an interview. “We feel like we’re pretty well positioned.”

Sources say the brothers are supporting the Kansas City host committee that has formed to back its bid. Nugent said her city was getting support from business and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

A Koch Industries spokesman, Rob Tappan, said: “Koch is not involved in the 2016 Republican National Convention bid process.”

But that may not be permanent. “Do I expect the Koch brothers to be participatory? Well of course,” Nugent said. “In the bidding process, we will tell the RNC where we expect our money to come from.”

That money is going to be a big hurdle for any city. Host committees will have to raise about $50 million to supplement federal funds, money that pays for venues and security, among other things.

On its face, Las Vegas would seem to be the perfect city to host a convention. While other cities have to spread the 40,000 to 50,000 delegates, VIPs, party officials, media and dignitaries across hotels that can be an hour or more away, Las Vegas boasts more than 150,000 hotel rooms, according to the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority. The biggest logistical challenge the city might face is arena space: The Thomas & Mack Center, where the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels play basketball, seats up to 19,522 people for ring events, while the MGM Grand Garden Arena can accommodate 16,800. MGM is building a new arena that would seat 20,000 people and is slated to open in summer 2016.

But Las Vegas’s image as gambling mecca and Sin City carries a host of potential pitfalls that would make either party wary of the visuals a convention backed by neon lights would convey. Vegas fans say gambling has now become mainstream, and they point out that Tampa, where Republicans held their convention in 2012, had more strip clubs.

Despite the drawbacks, the effort to build a Las Vegas host committee is real. The group has hired Jack St. Martin, a former top official at the RNC and the Christian Coalition who helped bring a Republican primary debate, sponsored by CNN, to Las Vegas in 2012. St. Martin, those close to the organizing committee say, knows how to count votes on the RNC.

“Welcoming the convention to our state would highlight Las Vegas’ world-class hospitality industry, energize the economy and draw additional investment to the Silver State,” Sen. Dean Heller (R) said in a statement on Tuesday. Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), convention organizers said, is also on board.

A few states away, Kansas City officials are making their case too. Mayor Sly James (D) visited RNC members at their summer meeting in Boston in August to pitch his city. Kansas City’s major drawback is Las Vegas’s major advantage: There is no big downtown hotel to serve as a convention hub, which James told the Kansas City Star “certainly doesn’t help.”

Kansas City would hold convention activities in the Sprint Center, a 20,000-seat arena which has hosted several rounds of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, Nugent said. The Sprint Center is just three blocks from the city’s convention center, connected by the Power and Light District, a hub of shops and restaurants. If the 2016 Republican nominee’s campaign is interested, Nugent said, the convention could hold its final night in Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play football.

Several other cities, including Charlotte, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, are said to be in the early running as well. Sean Noble, a longtime veteran of the Koch brothers’ political organization who bases his consulting firm in Phoenix, said he is hoping to convince Republicans to come to the Valley of the Sun.

The convention location will ultimately be selected by a site selection committee hand-picked by RNC chairman Reince Priebus. The committee is a plum assignment, one usually used to reward allies of the chairman or key votes he needs to win over in his next election.

It’s not unusual for the host committees to be run independently of state Republican or Democratic parties. After all, conventions are good for local business, and even Democratic mayors of host cities routinely welcome Republican convention-goers to their home turf.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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