Three Republican governors eyeing the White House delivered similar pitches but starkly different styles to megadonor Sheldon Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday in Las Vegas.
Nearly two years before GOP voters begin going to the polls, the race for Adelson’s support is well at hand, bringing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich to the billionaire’s Venetian Casino to address the group. Catering to the pro-Israel crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s leadership conference, they brought heavy criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy to the high-dollar donor conference. The politicians also highlighted their states’ economic revivals and their personal electoral successes as models for future Republican candidates.
“We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we will be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we will be against them,” Christie said in criticism of Obama. “In New Jersey, nobody has to wonder whether I’m for them or against them.”
With the Iranian nuclear negotiations and Russian’s annexation of Crimea as a backdrop, the three would-be Commanders in Chief emphasized the need for a “strong America again,” as Walker put it. They were united in rejecting the isolationist wing of the GOP as embodied by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a frequent target of conference speakers.
“America must be engaged in the world, and we should help the people who share our values,” Kasich said.
Walker, who spoke first, opened his address with an appeal to the largely Jewish crowd. He said he lights a “menorah candle” every year with his Christmas tree and that his son Matthew’s name derives from the Hebrew for “gift from God.” He devoted much of his address to telling stories about his efforts in Wisconsin taking on public-sector unions, but also highlighted his broad fundraising base and outreach to minority voters. When he turned to foreign policy, Walker prefaced by saying he was speaking “not as a candidate” but “as a concerned citizen.”
Christie, who has seen his GOP establishment support waver in light of the ongoing scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, found himself at home in front of the audience. He cracked jokes and repeatedly drew loud ovations with his now familiar message to the Republican Party to embrace pragmatism. “Here’s what we stand for in 2014: winning,” he said, recounting his own more successful electoral efforts to make inroads into minority communities.
Christie transfixed the donors with a long discussion of his visit to Israel two years ago, but caused a minor hubbub in the room when he referred to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the “occupied territories.” Many of the conservative donors were concerned that phrase was pejorative toward Israel, with some voicing those concerns directly to Christie. But Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he was convinced Christie had simply misspoken and was not outlining new policy.
Adelson was not in the room when Walker spoke, but all three governors are expected to meet privately with him this weekend. Their speeches followed former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s well-received remarks at a VIP dinner on Thursday at Adelson’s company’s private airplane hangar where he denounced “American passivity” under Obama. Adelson entered several minutes into Christie’s speech and took a reserved seat in the front row directly in front of Christie’s podium. Kasich, who spoke at a later luncheon, sat next to the casino magnate during the meal.
Kasich, who ran for President in 2000, repeatedly mentioned Adelson during his remarks, which were entirely focused on domestic policy, including an emphasis on “compassionate conservative” issues like drug addiction, charity and mental health. He opened with folky stories about his family and childhood, saying his parents could never imagine he’d be governor of Ohio. He also said creating jobs and opportunity is a “moral obligation.” Asked pointedly “What do you know about international affairs?” Kasich proceeded to give wide-ranging survey of American foreign policy challenges, noting he was a member of the House Armed Services Committee for 18 years.
For all the governors, Adelson’s support — and his seemingly unlimited bank account — could be make-or-break should they decide to run for the White House. Worth an estimated $38 billion, Adelson devoted at least $100 million backing Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in 2012.
“Hey, listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me,” Kasich said as he closed his speech, bringing his Adelson mentions into the double digits. “I don’t travel to these things much, but this was one that I thought was really, really important.”