With donors on his mind, Ted Cruz heads to Vegas

Updated 5:31 PM EDT, Fri April 24, 2015
(CNN) —  

Ted Cruz has a lot on the line this weekend.

The Texas firebrand, who launched his presidential campaign last month, isn’t breaking through in most early polls of the 2016 race. But when he travels to Las Vegas to speak to the Republican Jewish donors he has aggressively courted, he’ll be on top.

The only other Republicans with presidential aspirations expected to attend the Republican Jewish Coalition spring meeting are former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. They’re all at the bottom of most polls. And the top-ranking Republicans, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, won’t be around.

That gives Cruz a key opening to prove to some of the most prominent Republican donors, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, that he’s the most electable, pro-Israel Republican in a crowd of candidates making the exact same pitch. The coalition is deeply split, with large groups of donors interested in Cruz, Bush, Walker and Rubio, according to a half-dozen RJC members. Consensus seems far in the distance – if it will ever arrive at all.

“I don’t think at this time there is any larger faction than any other,” said Ron Bloom, a California GOP donor on the group’s board who is undecided. “I’ll commit to four of five of them financially because I love them all – and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

The four dozen board members in attendance this weekend includes some of the biggest names in the pro-Israel donor network, including Adelson, potential Rubio finance chair Wayne Berman, top Bush bundler Sam Fox, and hedge fund manager Paul Singer. And other Israel supporters – incensed by President Obama’s recent negotiations with Iran and his perceived snubbing of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – will draw record attendance, with about 700 total people expected to attend the spring meeting.

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Bundlers and other top donors will roam Adelson’s Venetian Resort and Hotel, likely crossing paths not just with Cruz and Perry but also with the surrogates that other candidates are sending to rub elbows with the RJC board members on their behalf.

Walker is sending his chief foreign policy aide, Mike Gallagher, to the meeting, as an ambassador, according to someone familiar with the event. And Bush has an even better surrogate: his older brother, President George W. Bush, who appointed many of the group’s leadership to plum assignments during his presidency and will speak Saturday evening.

“There is a tremendous connection not only with George W. Bush the man, but the George W. Bush who has been probably the best president that Israel has ever had,” said Florence Shaprio, a former Texas state senator who is supporting Jeb Bush. “There’s not a strong – there’s a very strong – leaning toward George W. Bush.”

Another shadow Cruz will have to overtake this weekend: 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who some RJC members still think can be convinced to make a third run for the office. Romney won a coveted spot at the Thursday evening private dinner at Sheldon Adelson’s home, joining Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus.

“I know he would be the best of the best,” said board member Martin Selig, who is hoping the Jewish group could draft him, though Romney has continually rebuffed others’ entreaties.

Yet Cruz has his allies in the group, led by Dallas businessman and longtime Cruz friend Adam Ross, according to several RJC members. Cruz has also deputized Nick Muzin, a political aide to Cruz who is Orthodox, as his top pitchman to the Jewish community.

“Jewish voters are approaching 2016 very strategically and they want to support someone that can win the nomination and can beat Hillary – and we’ve been successfully making that argument,” said Muzin.

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Cruz remains a somewhat less divisive figure in the RJC community than he does within the broader Republican electorate: Many RJC members have been enamored by the Texan’s ideological commitment to Israel, with several recalling how Cruz walked off the stage at an gala in September where some crowd members heckled and booed him for his advocacy.

“If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you,” he told the crowd.

Nevertheless, RJC leadership is looking for Cruz to convert on that goodwill this weekend. He has spoken to the board before privately, but this is his first audition in front of the entire roll of supporters.

“If somebody has the opportunity to catch fire and doesn’t catch fire, that’s notable,” said one RJC board member, who asked not to be identified.

Cruz will attend Shabbat dinner on Friday evening and speak Saturday morning, as will Perry, Pence and Ohio senator Rob Portman. Graham and House Speaker John Boehner will address members in the afternoon. That’s when Cruz and Perry will be quickly hustling across two time zones to address an audience of very different beliefs at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

But much of the Cruz overtures will happen before he even speaks – on the sidelines at cocktail parties at receptions where deals are made and commitments secured. Cruz is scheduled to meet privately with several RJC board members, Muzin said.

Cruz will likely have his sights trained on Adelson in particular, who spent at least $100 million in 2012 – including some against Cruz in his Texas primary – and has not yet decided which Republican candidate to support in this year’s primary, according to Republicans familiar with his thinking. Cruz has huddled with Adelson several times in the past few months.

But this weekend, every Republican donor gets a chance for one more once-over before they meet the Republican field in full at a forum in December in Washington. By then, the Iowa caucuses won’t be far off.

Any hard endorsement at this point – no matter how hard Cruz or his Republican rivals pursue them or how sincerely donors consider their overtures – aren’t likely to come after one weekend, though. RJC members said they plan to smile and play polite.

“When there’s presidential politics in the works, everybody sort of stands up and salutes,” said Shapiro.

Sara Murray contributed to this report.