LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Rick Perry, and other 2016 presidential hopefuls flocked to Sin City on Saturday to tout their support for Israel at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring meeting, where hundreds of influential conservative donors gathered to evaluate the emerging field.
The event was hosted by gaming billionaire and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson at his palatial Venetian Hotel, famous for an indoor canal where gondoliers serenade casino-goers as they drift past celebrity chef restaurants, designer clothing stores, and a scented oxygen bar.
The dominant topic on everyone’s lips over the weekend was the Obama administration’s ongoing talks with Iran, which attendees fear will fail to curb their nuclear ambitions and, by undoing economic sanctions, will strengthen the Islamic Republic’s ability to finance extremist groups throughout the Middle East.With the exception of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has expressed more interest in negotiations and favors a lighter U.S. footprint abroad, the GOP field tends toward the party’s hawks on Iran and on foreign policy in general. Paul has made an effort to shore up relations with skeptical pro-Israel groups, however, and met with Adelson earlier this year.
“It is not complicated for Republican politicians to come to the RJC and say they’ll stand with Israel,” Cruz said in his remarks. “Unless you’re a blithering idiot, that’s what you say when you come to the RJC.”
Cruz argued that his legislative record was his standout feature, pointing to a bill that offered a multi-million dollar reward for the capture of those responsible for the murder of three Israeli teens last year that led to a deadly conflict between the Israeli military and Hamas militants in Gaza. He boasted that he called for John Kerry’s resignation after the secretary of state warned in a closed-door meeting that Israel could become an “apartheid state” if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues.
“How do you distinguish who will actually follow you? I think the answer is to say, ‘Talk is cheap – show me,’” Cruz said.
Perry took a more general approach, bashing Obama’s handling of negotiations with Iran, warning of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and drawing a standing ovation for decrying demands for an economic boycott of Israel from campus activists.
“The fact is, it doesn’t limit them, it legitimizes them,” the former Texas governor said of the Iran framework. “It is a dangerous deal and for the sake of peace in the Middle East it must be stopped.”
The competition for dollars is heated. In interviews, attendees over and over again emphasized how large and accomplished the emerging pool of Republican White House hopefuls is in 2016 compared to 2012, where Mitt Romney dominated establishment support early while fighting off a series of short-lived surges from lesser-funded opponents. Many are holding off on backing one contender until they have a better sense of who is running and whether they have any staying power.“You have a field of thoroughbreds,” former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, who supports South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham for president, told reporters. “A lot of people want to see the scorecard and then they’ll pick and choose.”
Other speakers included Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and, at a private event, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, both of whom are considered possible 2016 contenders.
“We must stand without apology for our most cherished ally, the Jewish state of Israel,” Pence said in his speech.
Coleman caused a stir at the event after telling reporters that Snyder had indicated to donors he was definitely running – a spokesman for the governor told The Guardian shortly afterward that he had not yet decided on his plans.
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Other speakers included former President George W. Bush, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner, all of whom addressed attendees at closed-door events.
Organizers and participants told msnbc they believed the Iran issue and President Obama’s tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would drive members to new heights of giving in 2016. Attendance at the event was up 75% from 2014 and 125% from 2013, according to RJC spokesman Mark McNulty.
“Our best recruiters are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” McNulty told msnbc.
The RJC boasts support from a number of leading GOP funders that any 2016 hopeful would love to have on their side. The clear shining prize for now, however, is Adelson, whose endorsement alone could turn an underfunded also-ran into a dark horse making a credible push for the nomination.
One of the world’s richest men, Adelson is a leading advocate for Netanyahu’s Likud government in Israel, where he owns a prominent right-leaning newspaper. In 2013, Adelson suggested at a panel discussion in New York that the U.S. should drop a nuclear bomb in an unpopulated desert in Iran, then say “the next one is in the middle of Tehran,” rather than engage in negotiations. (A spokesman later told reporters the comment was meant as “hyperbole”).
A Politico report indicated that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has the edge in earning Adelson’s support, but a spokesman for Adelson denied any decision had been made. Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a friend of Adelson, told msnbc in Vegas that he believed the casino magnate was still weighing his options as well.“What he’s looking for is a winner,” Klein said. “I don’t think he’s made any decision.”
In an op-ed in the Times of Israel, Democratic chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz derided the RJC conference as an audition for Adelson’s personal support rather than a representation of the broader Jewish community, noting that Jewish voters have long supported Democratic presidential candidates by wide margins.
“[Don’t] allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that these candidates are making a real attempt to appeal to American Jewish voters,” Wasserman Schultz wrote. “Their presence is all about winning over a single Jewish donor: Sheldon Adelson.”