With federal money gone, parties scramble for convention cash

With federal money gone, parties scramble for convention cash
Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson stepped in with a $5-million check to help finance the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. But he was reportedly unwilling to pay the full freight for Las Vegas to host the GOP in 2016. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

When Las Vegas pulled the plug this week on its bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, the move had the distinct feel of you can't fire me, I quit.

The city, which has been the country's No. 1 convention destination for 20 years, had labored under the onus of its licentious image, which is probably the only reason, given its great many advantages, Las Vegas has never hosted a national political convention.


Also, it didn't help that the state party recently pulled the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage planks from its platform, or that Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval applauded the effort, antagonizing the GOP's crucial conservative wing.

The reason the Las Vegas host committee gave for dropping its bid was uncertainty surrounding the availability of its busy convention center for the dates the GOP desired. But money also played a role, as Nevada’s political reporting dean Jon Ralston noted.  

"Not enough people wanted to pony up to give the RNC up-front money, as Dallas, for instance, has been willing to do," Ralston posted Thursday on his website, soon after the party announced its four finalists: Dallas, Denver, Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo.

"There wasn't any real appetite to buy into it," a well-placed insider told Ralston. "Unless it's on your piece of dirt on the Strip, nobody cares."

Money attends politics the way night follows day, the earth orbits the sun, and the moon governs the tides. But it is even more central this time to the convention competition.

Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation to strip federal funding for the two major parties' summer meetings — financing that had been part of the post-Watergate campaign-reform effort — turning the money over to pediatric medical research. (At a time when many politicians and most political institutions have a near-subterranean approval level, this makes shooting fish in a barrel seem sporting.)

President Obama signed the measure into law in an Oval Office ceremony and each of the two parties is now scrambling to fill an $18-million hole.

The history of convention funding is one of shortfalls, panic and desperate, last-minute check-writing. In 2012, Republican nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney had to step in with less than a month to go to help Tampa close a gap of nearly $30 million.

The biggest check, for $5 million, came from Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. When it came to the city's 2016 bid, though, he was "willing to give his share, but not buy the entire thing," Ralston reported. (Will Adelson be as quick to open his wallet, now that his hometown was spurned?)

The $30 million raised to bail out Tampa was money that could — and should — have gone into television advertising at a time Romney was being clobbered on the airwaves by Obama, said one former Romney strategist.

Given that experience, Republicans from the top down have made no secret that money is the No. 1 consideration in placing its next convention, ignoring the silly and meretricious argument that location — Denver is where Obama was nominated! Cleveland is in a swing state! — will somehow sway the outcome of the presidential election.

"It's a business decision," Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, flatly told reporters in discussing the party's selection criteria. Guaranteed financing — of the iron-clad, upfront variety — is the No. 1 priority, Priebus said.

In short, there will no roll of the dice this time for the GOP or, most likely, for the Democrats, either.