LAS VEGAS — For once, Ted Cruz’s biggest problem isn’t Donald Trump.
As Cruz heads to the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring meeting here, he’s about to encounter a group of donors that, in another cycle, would have already been enthusiastically committed to the likely Republican nominee. But this time around, many are burned out after having already supported multiple other candidates who didn’t last, and now they’re considering sitting out the primary entirely.
Cruz is going all out this weekend in an attempt to bring those Republicans off the sidelines, and RJC insiders say he has a real opportunity to do so. But first, they say, he’ll need to spell out a path to beating Trump — and being competitive in a general election — that convinces disillusioned donors and well-connected party activists to rally one more time, especially in a crowd where some see him as too hard-line.
“Ted has been powerfully supportive of Israel, and that’s been enticing to a lot of people here,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for George W. Bush, who now serves on the RJC’s board. But, he continued, “Ted, by nature of the purity with which he approaches politics, has made his candidacy somewhat of a question mark for people here. So I think he has to deal with that. … It’s just a question mark over whether Ted practices such a pure version of politics that it’s too uncompromising.”
Cruz will have many opportunities this weekend to reshape that perception among a crowd that generally did not have him as their first, second, even third choice — but one that is also largely opposed to Donald Trump and unaccustomed to sitting out of party politics.
“I’ve heard several people say, ‘How many times do I have to go to my wallet and write checks?’” said Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America. “So I’ve heard a little frustration. They’ve been giving out major donations to candidates, and they’re a little frustrated they’re going to have to write additional checks for a candidate they didn’t initially support. But I think they’re going to do it.”
And Cruz stands poised to be the beneficiary, said Klein, who is unaligned but close to the RJC’s most influential board member, Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson, a Republican mega-donor, has yet to spell out support for a candidate, and some at the RJC are waiting to see what he will do, if anything. Adelson, who has sounded more receptive to Trump than many of his fellow RJC members currently do, is not attending the conference this weekend — he has a family commitment, Klein said — but did host top RJC members at his home Thursday night, where over dinner they heard from former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who talked some about uniting political fractures.
It’s not that Cruz, who just notched a $32 million quarter, is particularly reliant on RJC money. But broad-based support from the RJC, a well-respected organ of GOP politics, would send a significant message about party unity around Cruz, once a party pariah who still has few friends in the Senate.
Cruz, who gave a very well-received speech at the RJC last year and spent time working the room, already counts some leading RJC members as involved supporters. Others have quietly donated money but don’t plan to be publicly or politically active on his behalf.
He will host his own donor meeting this weekend in the same hotel, the Adelson-owned Venetian, to make it easy for attendees to move back and forth.
He also benefits from the fact that two of his prominent endorsers, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are on the RJC schedule. Abbott, Cruz and Walker — the previous choice of a substantial number of attendees here — will all appear at a dinner hosted by the pro-Cruz Trusted Leadership PAC Saturday night at the nearby Caesers Palace hotel, according to a schedule reviewed by POLITICO. And on Saturday afternoon, Cruz will address the whole RJC conference and is expected to host a private meeting with some of the group’s most influential leaders.
“I think it will be highly revealing if Cruz gets a very warm reception from a group that supported, very significantly, the ‘Washington Cartel,’ as Cruz likes to call them, for the last 30 years,” said a source who is a donor to both Cruz and the RJC, referencing the Washington establishment that Cruz frequently rails against. “If he can bring the donors at the RJC together in a meaningful way, I anticipate that will bode well at the [Republican National] Convention. If we leave the RJC and still have a lot of different factions of support, if Cruz can’t make the case coherently there, I think a lot of people keep their powder dry and see what happens.”
Part of making that case is showing to donors that his campaign, which nationally lags well behind Trump’s, is still a good investment headed into a contested convention.
“He’s unequivocally a supporter of Israel,” said Jay Zeidman, a Houston-based businessman previously backing Jeb Bush, who is now supporting Cruz. “We know that, that’s the No, 1 issue to RJC members, there’s no better friend to Israel in this primary right now than Ted Cruz. I don’t think he needs to explain his bona fides. He’s done that, he came here last year and did that. I think it’s about his pathway to the nomination.”
Cruz, however, is the only Republican presidential candidate to speak this weekend — Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are not attending — and that gives him an edge in this crowd.
“He’s going to get a lot of buzz after this speech this weekend, and especially without either of the other two speaking, I think it’s going to be a very good weekend for Cruz,” Klein said.
Cruz is not a natural fit for the RJC gathering, which draws many attendees who place heavy emphasis on security for Israel but are more moderate on social issues and don’t like the no-compromise stance in the Senate that has been Cruz’s signature. Some attendees walking the halls at the convention Thursday night and Friday morning privately raised questions about Cruz’s electability.
“People may have different views on who’s more electable,” said Klein, who is not personally endorsing. “But … their confidence in their ability to discern who is more electable has suffered, when they saw people they thought were most electable, like Bush and Rubio, being forced to drop out, they don’t have the same confidence in their ability” to determine that.
And in a contest between Trump and Cruz, the Texas senator is seen as the more palatable option, with a clearer path to a general election victory, Fleischer said, giving Cruz 50-50 odds of beating Hillary Clinton.
“Typically, in an election year, Ted would have been a harder sell,” he said. “But Ted has proven to be more electable than Donald Trump.”
He went on to add, “The good thing about the election in 2016 is you get a lot of mulligans.”
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