LAS VEGAS — Disgust with the Iranian nuclear framework agreement dominated this weekend’s meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, as a crop of White House aspirants sought to outdo each other in opposition to the deal before a record crowd.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas declared that he intends “to do everything humanly possible to stop a bad Iran deal.” Former Texas governor Rick Perry warned that “tyrants don’t abide by agreements.” And Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, another possible 2016 contender, pledged that “Israel’s enemies are our enemies; Israel’s cause is our cause.”
Their impassioned declarations underscored the political clout of the organization, which includes some of the GOP’s largest donors — particularly casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the 81-year-old chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands, who Forbes estimates is worth $29.2 billion.
RJC officials said that the organization has seen a flood of new contributors in recent months as President Obama has clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a proposed deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Nearly 800 people gathered in Las Vegas for the group’s three-day spring leadership meeting, almost double the number who attended last year. The surge in donations will allow the RJC to mount its biggest voter outreach effort in 2016, the group’s executives said.
“We are building up our war chest,” Chairman David Flaum said Saturday morning.
The organization will not take sides in the GOP primary, but 2016 contenders are hoping to win the support of the wealthy individuals who make up the group’s leadership. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida all have strong supporters on the RJC’s heavyweight board, but many on the panel remain neutral, according to people familiar with the dynamics.
The driving concern throughout the group is the proposed Iranian deal. Many say that they worry the deal will allow Iran to continue to develop its nuclear capabilities.
“The fear for Israel’s future is sharp,” said board member Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary. “People are scared.”
In his speech Saturday, Cruz warned that Israel faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran. “Will subsequent maps of the world show a nation of Israel?” he asked. “That’s what the stakes are.”
Perry denounced Obama for having “delusional thinking” when it comes to his assessment of global threats, adding that “he places naive trust in the ayatollah of Iran.”
Top 2016 contenders who were not in attendance sent emissaries to work the crowd. At a closed-door reception Friday night, Bush aide Karen Unger handed out “Jeb!” buttons in Hebrew, while Walker strategist Rick Wiley mingled with major donors.
Adelson, who has been intensely courted by the wide field of 2016 candidates, has not said whom he will support. Associates expect him to hold off picking a favorite until the fall, after the first few debates.
In 2012, the casino tycoon and his wife, Miriam, plowed more than $92 million into efforts to elect Republicans, including a costly effort to boost the long-shot presidential bid of former House speaker Newt Gingrich. This time, advisers say, the bar for support will be higher as Adelson weighs who has the best shot of winning the White House.
Rubio is believed to be one of the leading contenders for his backing. Adelson’s daughter and son-in-law donated to Rubio’s leadership PAC last fall, and in January, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson each gave $10,200 to the Rubio Victory Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Adelson kept a low profile Saturday morning during the only session open to the media at his ornate Venetian hotel. But at the private lunch that followed, he sat next to the featured guest, House Speaker John A. Boehner.
The gathering kicked off with a private al fresco dinner Thursday night for top RJC board members and donors outside Adelson’s mansion, where guests dined on phyllo-wrapped chicken and heard from former presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who urged them to donate to the party.
Former president George W. Bush was set to cap off the event with an off-the-record session Saturday night, fielding questions from Fleischer and Josh Bolten, his former chief of staff.