Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Setting up the fancy Wi-Fi lounges at last week’s Republican National Committee meeting was the easy part. Now comes the real challenge — persuading the newly elected site selectors to dub Las Vegas the party's host for the next Republican convention in 2016.
“I feel good about it. I feel like we’re in the mix,” said Ryan Erwin, a powerful consultant in Nevada and one of the many influential Nevada Republicans who flew out to the RNC’s winter meeting in D.C. to help sell Las Vegas to the assembly. “I would be surprised if we’re not a finalist, because the response has been so strong.”
Erwin, along with Las Vegas 2016 committee Chairman and Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, were moving around the meeting with an air of fatigued but certain optimism Friday, having spent the better part of three days selling the merits of Las Vegas as a convention location to anyone with a question, opinion or free five minutes.
“The RNC, when it actually convenes, there are 168 people. It's a finite group. So the ability to actually meet and befriend and have conversation time with all the members is quite easy,” Krolicki said. “We want people to understand that we’re serious, we’re earnest, we’re real, we’re in it.”
For the time being, however, the site selection process is coming down to just eight people — RNC members who were elected by their peers Friday to vet all possible candidate host cities, conduct site selection visits and, eventually, pick a 2016 host.
The group is diverse. It includes a top Republican election organizer from first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire; the president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition in first-national-caucus state Iowa; a committeeman from Arkansas with expertise as a contractor; and a national committeewoman from Mississippi who uses a wheelchair. There are four alternates. None is from Nevada.
In a few weeks, they will begin reviewing bid cities' proposals, which are due Feb. 26. The proposals are no superficial affair: To be taken seriously, a bid team has to show the logistics of not just how they would put on the main convention event, but also how they would house all RNC members, guests and media; how they would provide security for an event featuring many high-level politicians and a handful of contenders for the White House; and how they would finance the operation.
“Cities bid on it because there’s a lasting economic effect by hosting an event like that, but it is costly,” said John Frey, a national committeeman from Connecticut and a member of the 2012 site selection committee, which chose Tampa. “You want to see official government support.”
That’s not a problem for the Las Vegas bid, where deep-pocketed donors — especially Republican ones — are easy to come by, with Gov. Brian Sandoval pitching in to help make the sale. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — no best friend of Republicans — has said the GOP convention would be “good for business.”
Instead, Las Vegas’ chief challenge in the proposal — which drafters estimate will be about 100 pages, not counting photos, videos and graphics they’ll also be submitting — will be articulating exactly how they plan to tailor the city's convention expertise to something of the size and complexity of a national convention.
“Logistics are terribly important to folks because the most recent experience of (convention 2012 site) Tampa is still in people’s minds,” Krolicki said.
Few RNC members the Sun spoke with last week had anything good to say about Tampa. Memories of being stuck on convention buses in the sweltering heat, sometimes for hours, are still fresh.
“I think last time, in Florida, we were closer to Havana, Cuba, than to Tampa,” recalled Shawn Steel, national committeeman from California and an alternate to this year’s site selection committee.
“It’s important that you have a lot of hotel rooms as close to the site of the convention as possible,” said Bruce Hough, an RNC member from Florida. “Our hotel was an hour away, and that was in our own home state.”
Many delegates remember cities such as New York, Philadelphia and San Diego fondly.
"I like being together ... when everything is in walking distance," said Toni Anne Dashiell, a national committeewoman from Texas, who remembered the New York convention most fondly. "That is one reason that I like Las Vegas."
Las Vegas has made its cluster of hotels on the Strip the central selling point of its 2016 pitch — and as selling points go, it is the most unique. The convention and meeting halls and hotel rooms necessary to host in 2016 could be within less than a mile of one another. And for local transportation, there are more regularly operating shuttle buses and taxi cabs in Las Vegas than in most cities.
Another selling point has been the accessibility of Las Vegas, a city to which there are more direct flights than to rival cities such as Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s an easy city to travel to,” said Frey, who was on the 2012 selection committee. “Last time, a finalist was Salt Lake City, and that’s a little — well, there aren’t many direct flights to Salt Lake City.”
Las Vegas is not the only accessible city presumed to have a strong chance at being a finalist. Kansas City, Phoenix and Denver are all also hubs of their own.
But the combination of accessibility and accommodations, Las Vegas 2016 organizers think, makes it far more likely that Las Vegas can keep the cost of the convention experience low. They plan to stress that in their application, as well.
“Many of the people who attend either convention, they’re not inexpensive, and this is a big vacation every four years,” Krolicki said. “So they want to maximize the opportunity but have the best time while they do the work.”
“There’s a perception that Republicans are all rich; that’s not true at all. So you gotta make sure it’s reasonable, and the flights are all easy to get to,” said David Chang, national committeeman from Hawaii. “I joke with my Las Vegas buddies that the only downside would be that no one would show up to anything official, because there’s just so many other things to do.”
The schedule of events would likely take care of that problem: Because the Republican National Convention is broadcast nationally, the Pacific Time Zone would necessitate holding events earlier — probably from about 5 to 8 p.m., instead of late evening — to make primetime.
Conventiongoers could have dinner and catch a show each night, if they like, a selling point for many. (Only one national committeeman the Sun spoke with was concerned that convention hours would make his stomach growl.)
On the logistical arguments, it seems, Las Vegas is putting together a strong case. The pitfalls to a successful bid, however, are likely to come from the unquantifiable idiosyncrasies of the city that play differently for different kinds of Republicans.
First, there's the symbolism. Denver is the capital city of the West’s largest swing state, and has hosted a convention (though it was for Democrats). In Kansas City, 2016 would be the 40th anniversary of its last convention in 1976 (though that was the year Jimmy Carter won). Columbus is in the swing-center of the state electorally infamous enough to inspire the phrase “as Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” In that group, Las Vegas may be the new kid on the block.
Then there’s the heat. Las Vegas may have more than 320 days of sunshine a year, but with that come some scorchers.
“One disadvantage in Las Vegas, of course, is the heat … and I was born and raised in the desert,” Dashiell said. “That’s where Denver comes in, where it’s cool.”
Then there's the city’s reputation.
“The concern I have with the Las Vegas bid, quite frankly, is the ad campaign …'What happens (here), stays (here),'" said Kris Warner, an RNC member from West Virginia. “There are those of us who are Christian conservatives who would say … it's the image, and what are people going to think back home?”
Warner said he had spoken with religious leaders from Las Vegas and wasn’t ready to write off the city yet. But he worried what would happen if, say, a Republican convention attendee partook of the vices available in Las Vegas — especially if it happened in view of the media or even a cellphone that records video. People might get disillusioned with the party pretty darn quick, he suggested — and that could hurt turnout in the general election.
“Christian conservatives — that’s who we are, that’s our base,” Warner said. “It’s more important to stay true to your base.”
Warner thought going to Denver would be a better bet. But other Republicans see the situation differently, saying the more unsavory character points of Las Vegas pale in comparison with the way cities like Denver have lost their way.
“There’s the image of gambling (in Las Vegas),” said Vermont committeeman Jay Shephard, “but Denver just legalized pot, which I’m not in support of.”
Las Vegas’ crew acknowledged that their hardest task might be getting people to understand how Las Vegas has far more — more that is family-friendly — to offer than its longstanding reputation.
“There’s almost a universal acknowledgment that 15 or 20 years ago, this just wasn’t something that would be done,” Erwin said. “You couldn’t take a national convention of either party to Las Vegas. But that’s changed — and it’s fascinating to hear people from all parts of the country say that.”
If Las Vegas becomes a finalist, the bid team will have a few additional months to try to persuade the site selection committee to name it as host. The committee will likely reach a decision in June and recommend its candidate to a full Republican National Committee vote at the August meeting. The RNC has never not rubber-stamped the committee’s nomination.