RJC draws presidential contenders at Las Vegas leadership conference

Current and former Republican leaders touted their and the party’s accomplishments at the annual confab

LAS VEGAS — The top echelon of potential Republican presidential candidates made pitches to potential supporters and donors over the weekend at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership conference at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, with 10 potential presidential hopefuls making the event the unofficial kickoff to the 2024 campaign season.

While only one speaker — former President Donald Trump — has officially announced his candidacy, many of the other rising Republican stars gave hints, some explicit, toward their plans to challenge the former president for the GOP nomination. Direct criticism of the former president and his down-ballot acolytes, once considered verboten, was more prominent at this year’s conference, but the weekend also highlighted that Trump still remains popular, with many in the party divided over what its future might hold.

The clear star of the weekend was the closing speaker, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is riding high following a decisive victory that aided down-ballot Republicans in the Sunshine State on Election Day. He was greeted by the most vigorous cheers and applause of any of the weekend’s speakers.

DeSantis hinted only briefly at his future plans, concluding his speech by saying, “We’ve got a lot more to do and I have only begun to fight.”

Since last year’s conference, DeSantis had honed his pitch to the Jewish community, having touched more briefly on Israel policy and other Jewish community issues at the 2021 gathering.

This year, DeSantis rattled off Israel policy accomplishments and efforts to block campus antisemitism, and delivered a lengthy anecdote about baptizing his children in water taken from the Sea of Galilee. He also boasted that he was the first statewide elected official to hold a public event in “Judea and Samaria.”

“Those [West Bank areas] have thousands of years of connection to the Jewish people and I don’t care what the State Department says, they are not occupied territory, they are disputed territory,” he continued, to strong cheers from the audience. 

DeSantis largely steered clear of the reflections and recriminations about the midterms and Trump that many other speakers engaged in — touting that “Florida really has a blueprint for success” — although he did raise the specter of election irregularities like “dumps coming in where you don’t even know where these votes came from.”

The other star of the final night of the three-day conference was former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Haley repeated a line she used at this summer’s Christians United for Israel Conference hinting at a 2024 campaign, before confirming that she is going to “look at it in a serious way.” 

“I’ve won tough general elections and tough primaries, and I’ve been the underdog every single time,” Haley said. “I’ve never lost an election and I’m not going to start now.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition annual meeting at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev., on November 19, 2022. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Unlike some of the weekend’s other speakers, Haley deflected blame for Republican losses away from Trump, saying that losses were not “due to one person” and that the party did not have “bad candidates.” She instead blamed poor fundraising, Republicans’ reluctance about utilizing early voting — a common theme throughout the weekend — and GOP infighting.

Trump, in a video speech, remained relatively disciplined in seemingly scripted opening remarks, rapidly rattling off his accomplishments and grievances with Biden administration policies, but veered off-script during a Q&A, in which he addressed the Abraham Accords normalization agreements brokered by his administration.

“We had a very disgraceful election,” Trump said. “Had that been a good election then we would have had many more countries [joining the Abraham Accords] than we had before.” He suggested that up to 14 countries, including Saudi Arabia, were on the verge of joining the Abraham Accords “a short time after the election.”

Trump’s continued gripes about the election did not elicit a strong reaction from the crowd. He blamed the GOP’s midterm struggles on “a specific issue,” understood to be abortion, though the former president refrained from using the word.

He also repeated sentiments that have garnered accusations of antisemitism in the past, describing the Israeli government as “your leaders” and lamenting that “Jewish people don’t appreciate Israel the way they should.”

Trump’s remarks, which lasted for approximately 25 minutes, occasionally elicited loud applause from the audience. 

Alan Kruglak, an RJC attendee from Maryland, praised Trump’s accomplishments and embraced his widely debunked claims about widespread voter fraud. But Kruglak felt that Trump is “past his time” and that the party needs “new blood who is less controversial” and suggested that he would support DeSantis in a primary.

Eric Levine, a Republican fundraiser and RJC board member who described “the cult of Trump” as toxic to GOP prior to the conference, told Jewish Insider on Saturday that he estimated that about half of the audience was still supportive of the former president. 

He added, however, that it was not clear to him if they were “standing to thank him for what he achieved or whether they were standing to encourage him to run.”

An applause poll of audience members conducted midway through the day on Saturday — before Trump’s speech — featured moderate applause for Trump and much louder applause for DeSantis. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who also spoke during the weekend, doubling down on his failed challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), received almost no applause.

Jon Tucker, a Pittsburgh-based Republican activist, felt Trump had begun to take steps to “reinvent himself,” including moving beyond his claims about 2020 election fraud. But Tucker also acknowledged that such a pivot would likely be difficult for the former president to maintain.

Judy Robinson, also from Pittsburgh, questioned Trump’s ability to win the Republican nomination, much less a general election, because “there’s Trump derangement syndrome in the country… the forces arrayed against him are overwhelming.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) elicited an energetic reaction from the crowd with a largely upbeat, sermon-esque speech in which he repeatedly exhorted the audience to “rise with me” — what sounded like a trial balloon for a potential campaign slogan — at one point building up to an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience. 

Kruglak told JI that Scott had “hit all the right notes,” describing him as “inspirational.” Levine said Scott was “terrific” and would be “someone we’d have to seriously consider… a very viable candidate.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting on November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scott dodged debates over the midterm results and Trump, and was one of the only speakers to utter a positive word about a Democrat, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), with whom he has worked on legislation related to Israel and antisemitism.

A series of speakers did take the opportunity, however, to distance themselves from the former president and cast blame toward him and the fringe GOP candidates whom he promoted in this year’s midterms, many of whom lost. Reactions were somewhat mixed.

“The speeches ranged from being somewhat neutral about Trump to being aggressively opposed to Trump. Whenever Trump [was] mentioned positively, it was done in passing,” Levine said. “If you had come here two, three years ago and you mentioned Trump, then there weren’t enough superlative adjectives that you could use… Today… we’re just talking about the accomplishment and mov[ing] on.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — the clearest anti-Trump voice at last year’s RJC convention — once again came out swinging in a speech that received a relatively positive reception from the audience.

“If they want to win, they’ve got to coalesce,” Tucker said. “If it turns out that Donald Trump has the backing of a major portion of the Republican Party, they’d be better to just turn around and just get behind him and realize that the substance of what he was able to do in those four years trumps — no pun intended — trumps his personality and his style.”

“It is time to stop being afraid of any one person, it is time to stand up on our principles,” Christie said in closing his remarks, to a standing ovation from the crowd. “I am ready for that fight, I hope you are ready for that fight.”

Brad Pollack, an attendee from Virginia who said he plans to support Trump in the 2024 primary, told JI he felt that Christie had won over as much as 65% of the crowd as he laid out his anti-Trump case, but estimated that Trump’s own subsequent appearance had won half of those doubters back over to his side.

He also acknowledged that it’s “hard to dispute” that Trump has been a drag on the party and that Trump needs to “change… show some humility,” but it is “extremely unlikely” that the former president will do so. 

Pollack also expressed some flexibility, saying he does not plan to “go to the bitter end with” Trump. Pollack dismissed DeSantis as “still not quite Trump,” though he predicted that DeSantis has the best chance of gaining the nomination in two years.

Some audience members who were open to other possible candidates, including Christie, were also not opposed to backing the former president again.

“If they want to win, they’ve got to coalesce,” Tucker said. “If it turns out that Donald Trump has the backing of a major portion of the Republican Party, they’d be better to just turn around and just get behind him and realize that the substance of what he was able to do in those four years trumps — no pun intended — trumps his personality and his style.”

Like Christie, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu received cheers for his criticisms of Trump-backed midterm candidates.

“Candidate quality matters. Holy cow, we learned that the hard way… let’s stop supporting crazy, unelectable candidates in our primaries,” Sununu said. At the same time, he downplayed the need for a wholesale “course correction” for the GOP.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo teased plans for a 2024 run with thinly veiled references to presidential debates and the derogatory nickname he anticipates Trump will assign him, and a comment that fixing current U.S. issues “may take eight years.” (Trump can only serve one additional four-year term, if reelected.) In his speech, he celebrated his and the Trump administration’s accomplishments, but also distanced himself from the former president.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition annual meeting at the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev., on November 19, 2022. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“We have to find people who are putting themselves forward who have character, commitment and real competence. Personality, celebrity just aren’t going to get it done,” Pompeo said, calling for a more positive, civil and optimistic GOP. 

The former Trump lieutenant also emphasized that his loyalty was “to the promises that we have made to the United States of America,” not “to a person or a party or a faction.” The reception to Pompeo’s remarks was generally positive, although far from unanimous.

Former Vice President Mike Pence touted the policy accomplishments of the prior administration, but also created some distance between himself and the former president.

“We must be the leaders who keep our oath even when it hurts,” Pence said, in what seemed to be an oblique reference to his break from Trump over Pence’s refusal to attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. 

“For the Republican Party to lead America into a boundless future, we must be the party of the Constitution of the United States of America,” Pence continued. That remark was met with minimal applause.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has tacked to the center as the leader of a blue state, received a muted reaction to his own call for Republicans to rid themselves of the former president — ”three strikes and you’re out,” he said of Trump.

“Last week, the voters sent a clear message that they want to turn the page,” Hogan continued — a sentiment that did not receive an overwhelming response from the audience. “I think it’s time for the GOP to move forward, not keep looking back.”

Speaking to reporters about the apparent lack of enthusiasm for his message, Hogan said that he was “speaking truth to power” and “wasn’t there to just tell them what they wanted to hear. I told them what I thought they needed to hear… and there are more people coming around to that.”

Heather Robinson, who described herself as a “pro-Trump Jewish voter,” said she felt that some calls for moving past Trump may not have landed in part because “the substance of what he accomplished can’t be denied for America.”

While not sharing his 2024 plans, Hogan expressed confidence that the field is still wide open and that the current maneuvering will have little impact on the ultimate outcome.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), perennially popular with the RJC set, seemed to back away from 2024 speculation in his appearance this year, offering no hints toward a presidential run and instead focusing on his 2024 Senate campaign — although he also declined to definitively rule out a run in comments to reporters after his onstage remarks.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was set to address the conference privately but canceled due to an emergency in his state.

Overall, the mood in the room, both from speakers and from audience members, was more subdued than at the 2021 conference, as Republicans grappled with their recent midterm  losses. But some speakers endeavored to downplay the scope of the GOP’s losses and play up their bright spots, working to reassure the disappointed audience.

“Yes, expectations were not matched, but do not discount what we accomplished. We have [picked up] 25 House seats in the last two cycles. And most importantly, we have retired Nancy Pelosi,” RJC Chairman and former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) said in remarks on Saturday. “The Biden legislative agenda is dead.”

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