Written by Tod Gillman, DallasNews.com
Some of the heaviest hitters on the religious right are pressuring GOP leaders to cross off Las Vegas as a potential host city for its 2016 convention, warning that putting the next convention in Sin City will harm the party’s image and drive away supporters.
Dallas already pitches itself as a more wholesome alternative to Vegas, and the push-back could bolster the city’s effort.
The leaders sent a letter last week to Republican chairman Reince Priebus, putting him on notice that picking Vegas would generate friction. They call the city a “trap waiting to ensnare. … What could go wrong? The answer is obvious.”
Leaders from the religious right who have joined the effort include Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association; Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum; Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition; Paul Caprio, director of Family-PAC; and James Dobson, president of Family Talk ministry.
“The GOP is supposedly interested in reaching out to conservatives and evangelicals. Maybe that’s just a front, but if they really mean it this is not the way to do it,” Dobson said Tuesday. “Even though Vegas has tried to shore itself up and call itself family-friendly, it’s still a metaphor for decadence. There’s still 64 pages of escort services in the yellow pages. … You can’t have it both ways.”
The Las Vegas host committee’s marketing pitch for the 2016 convention emphasizes the city’s number of hotel rooms (150,000), golf courses (50) and places of worship (531).
Jack St. Martin, executive director of the Las Vegas 2016 host committee, sidestepped the evangelicals’ objections Tuesday. With so much hotel and meeting space, he said, the city “offers the Republican Party and the conservative cause the best opportunity in a generation to house, train, educate, motivate and activate the grass-roots volunteers that make up the foundation of the GOP.”
But the potential for viral video of delegates engaged in Hangover-style hijinks makes some party insiders nervous. When Vegas boosters made their pitch to the RNC on March 21, former Nevada Gov. Bob List acknowledged such concerns.
“We took it head-on,” he said. “Las Vegas is a metropolitan area of over 2 million people. We’re not just all blackjack dealers and pawnshop operators. This is a city with 6,000 members of the chamber of commerce, 20,000 Boy Scouts. We have massive soccer leagues, the fifth-largest school district in America. We’re an all-around city with a fast-growing population of Catholics and Jews and Hispanics. It’s a big metropolitan area.”
On the other hand, one of the bid committee’s promotional videos features Rick Harrison, co-owner of a pawnshop and star of the reality TV show Pawn Stars.
“You’ll love it here,” he says into the camera.
Last week, the RNC cut Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio, from the competition. That left Dallas, Las Vegas, Denver, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Kansas City, Mo.
Dallas and Las Vegas are widely viewed as front-runners. That’s because GOP leaders are putting a huge premium this year on a host city’s ability to raise $50 million or more without much fuss. Also of major importance is having enough hotels within a tight radius so delegates avoid hours of traffic delays.
Both were big issues in Tampa in 2012.
Sizing up the competition last week, Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Las Vegas may have great hotels. But it also has some baggage.
“That’s their challenge, and they’ll have to figure out how to address it. That’s not a challenge for us at all,” he said. “The Dallas message and the Dallas brand — free-market capitalism, entrepreneurial spirit, optimism, opportunity, low taxes, low regulation — fits very well with the Republicans’ brand.”
In Las Vegas, vice isn’t just incidental. It’s central to the city’s identity, history and economy.
“This is the city of deep, dark secrets. … Are they going to cross the Rubicon?” said Caprio, the Family-PAC director. “Parties have images to American voters as to who’s pro-family and who isn’t. … The base is already somewhat de-energized.”
One of three Texans on the GOP’s national committee, Robin Armstrong — also a member of the Dallas host committee — said the concerns are valid.
“That’s a pretty significant group. … They certainly can have an impact,” he said, adding that up to 65 percent of RNC members are “closely aligned” with the letter’s authors. “It would send a bad message to the conservative base.”
The anti-Vegas faction isn’t trying to tilt the competition toward Dallas or any other contender.
“Any of these other cities are fine,” Caprio said.
As the GOP narrows its options with an eye toward announcing a choice late this summer, concerns about Vegas are mounting. Influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson, editor of RedState, published an open plea Monday. He warned of bad publicity from “good Christian delegates getting drunk, gambling, stuffing dollar bills in strippers’ g-strings, etc.”
But for him, an even bigger concern is that the party would be cozying up to Sheldon Adelson. The billionaire casino mogul donated nearly $100 million to GOP candidates and causes in 2012 and would be a major funder of the host committee. His policy aims are protecting Israel and banning online gambling.
Erickson called it “embarrassing” to open the party to allegations that it picked a convention site “to placate a donor.”
Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition emphasized that her opposition to Las Vegas is no reflection on Adelson.
“Mr. Adelson is a great man,” she said, noting his commitment to Israel and other causes close to the hearts of many Republicans.
She’s bothered by the ready availability of escorts and prostitutes, even if prostitution is illegal in the city.
“It’s all over,” Lafferty said. “I can see all the setups that are going to take place. … There are other places that would be great to hold the convention.”
This article was originally posted at the DallasNews.com website. Follow Todd J. Gillman on Twitter at @toddgillman.