The Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting is under way in Las Vegas. I use “under way” in the loosest sense possible, since all that’s happened as of Friday is a round of golf, a poker tournament, and a very elite fundraiser with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that is the worst-kept secret in political news.
Bush is only one of several 2016 presidential prospects expected in Las Vegas in what the media are calling the “Sheldon Adelson primary.” Adelson is the casino magnate who contributed millions of dollars to Republicans in the 2012 election cycle, most of it towards losing candidates, including Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
He is certainly a factor in the presidential stakes, though the idea that he has the power to select the winner is rather farcical, albeit convenient for journalists and Democrats (but I repeat myself) who see him as an alternative target to the Koch Brothers.
In 2012, Democrats demonized Adelson, accusing him (falsely) of allowing prostitution in one of his casinos, and casting him as an antisemitic stereotype. In an apparent attempt to outrage Catholic voters, for example, the Obama campaign sent a fundraising email claiming that Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan had made a “pilgrimage” to “kiss the ring” of Adelson. As my colleague Ben Shapiro noted at the time:
The language is purposefully written to mirror the idea of pilgrimage to Rome to kiss the ring of the pope. Only Rome is now Vegas, and the pope is a wealthy Jew… The point is to demonize Adelson with religious language, and to turn Ryan into some sort of Judas willing to sell Americans down the river for 30 pieces of silver. If this isn’t a borderline anti-Semitic dog whistle, it is at the very least wildly irresponsible and disturbing language.
I am sure that Adelson would like to have as much control over political outcomes in the Republican Party and the country as the media pretend he does–though without the attendant publicity, which overshadows, as with the Kochs, the generous philanthropic work of Adelson and his family.
However, the sad fact is that Adelson, like much of the so-called Republican establishment, has been spectacularly bad at picking presidential candidates.
The list of luminaries addressing the RJC conference on Saturday, following the Bush fundraiser on Thursday, includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former UN Ambassador John Bolton.
What all of these leaders, good and great, have in common is that, to a one, they each come from states that voted for Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. They’re blue-state conservatives.
That means they will likely have a solid rapport with the RJC leaders, most of whom hail from states like New York, California, and Florida. But only two of them–Walker and Bolton–have solid support among the grass-roots conservatives who hold the true power in Republican primaries. Christie’s stock is recovering, but he faced doubts even before Bridgegate, and Kasich has lost ground in his pleading for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.
It is worth noting who is not present in Las Vegas this weekend: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who recently launched a nationwide organization that is surely the foundation of a serious run at the presidency.
It’s not that these politicians have bad relationships with the RJC–though the elder Paul was excluded from the RJC’s candidate forum–but this isn’t really their kind of party.
In fact, the one red-state Republican who makes a habit of showing up to RJC events is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has wasted much of his conservative credibility on ill-advised efforts at “comprehensive” immigration reform and climate change legislation, but who remains one of the strongest voices on Capitol Hill for Israel and against Islamic extremism. In that sense, Graham is the RJC exception that proves the rule.
That’s not to say the RJC’s Vegas meeting is meaningless. Far from it: the candidates who speak on Saturday will set the (unofficial) moderate agenda for 2016. It will be an agenda that embraces–or at least makes room for–conservative fiscal and social principles, but which also places a premium on executive experience, and especially on those candidates who have shown an ability to convince blue-state voters to cross the aisle.
Of the contenders not in Vegas, only Paul has expended a great deal of effort in reaching out to blue-state voters. He is going straight for the most left-wing constituency by finding common ground in opposition to the National Security Agency and other aspects of the anti-terror apparatus that was built up hastily–and excessively, according to its critics on both left and right–in the wake of the Sep. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
For that reason, foreign policy may prove to be one of the most important issues of the 2016 primary, perhaps even more important than Obamacare. There are already efforts under way to develop a coherent Republican alternative on health care, but on foreign policy the party remains in disarray.
Except, that is, at the RJC, which–like it or not–has a coherent, hawkish philosophy. That’s the real significance of the “Adelson primary.”