RNC 2016 decision: Las Vegas vs. Denver

Republicans may be choosing between gambling or pot when they pick their 2016 convention site. 

Las Vegas has emerged as the clear early front-runner to host the party’s next presidential nomination convention despite its “Sin City” reputation. Denver is seen as another serious contender, though the city’s “Mile High City” moniker had taken on a different connotation since Colorado legalized marijuana last election. 

The choice between the two cities — both in crucial swing states the GOP needs to win — had a few RNC members nervous about potential scandals during this past week’s winter meeting, but most were chortling about their choices and the stereotypes of each potential host city. 

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“Las Vegas — I don't know, you know? And Colorado's going to put in a bid. We're going to have a big pot party out there?” former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett told The Hill with a laugh.

“You could make an argument for that — have all the delegates come out and get high. Save on booze, come out and smoke on Colorado,” joked Bennett.  

The Ohio committeeman is lobbying for a city in his state to get the nod — either Columbus, which is making a strong play for the convention, or Cleveland, which may put in a bid. But he admitted Las Vegas had a lot to offer, and that some of the old stigma of gambling and strippers had worn off.

“When you put the strippers in there — it used to be gambling, now every city that's making a bid has some kind of gambling in it,” said Bennett. “The thing about Vegas… is they can handle conventions, they handle them every year.”

Both the Nevada and Colorado cities were making strong plays to win over committee members this week. The RNC meeting was sponsored by "Las Vegas 2016," which furnished wifi, couches and two open bars for attendees. 

Colorado Republicans, meanwhile, handed out swag bags complete with Denver Broncos coolers, Colorado Rockies hats, beer from Coors and Native Colorado, and literature on tourist destinations in the area (head shops not included).

Other cities making a push at the winter meetings: Columbus, Ohio, Kansas City, Mo. and Phoenix, Ariz. The RNC chose its site selection committee Friday morning, which will recommend a city in future months. 

Many other Republicans were joking about Las Vegas’s reputation and Colorado’s new law, but most praised the Nevada city’s ability to hold conventions, and didn’t run down Denver either. A big draw of Las Vegas is its plentiful, walkable hotels —something sorely lacking at both parties’ 2012 conventions in Tampa and Charlotte. 

Republicans also pointed out that worries about Tampa's robust strip club scene never materialized. 

“Maybe there contextually are some disadvantages to ‘Sin City.’ On the other hand, everyone who stays there can walk to the convention. After you've spent three hours in Tampa trying to walk to your thing that sounds pretty good,” said New Hampshire Committeeman Steve Duprey, who was named to the RNC’s site selection committee on Friday. 

Duprey, whose nickname from John McCain’s presidential campaign was “Secretary of Fun,” downplayed concerns about the two towns.

“I don't think it's going to be a big deal. Look, we've got to be competitive in those states,” said Duprey. “I don't think the fact that Colorado has got pot or that Nevada has gambling and Sin City is going to hurt. Those are states we have to win, and wherever we can put the best convention on that does the most to help our nominee be the president is all we care about.”

Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call joined in on the jokes about Las Vegas and defended his state’s bid for the convention.

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. What happens in Denver goes national,” he told The Hill. “Listen — compared to Las Vegas, the potential concern about folks getting caught doing things they might not want to write home about is something I’m not as concerned about for Colorado. 

Nevada Committeeman James Smack, who’s helping lobby to bring the convention to Las Vegas, scoffed at questions about the city’s reputation.

“Oh my gosh, Tampa was more famous for their strip joints than Las Vegas is, and we had a convention there,” said Smack. 

Smack joked that Colorado’s marijuana legalization “redefines Rocky Mountain High,” but said the state’s new law shouldn’t impact the committee’s decision-making. 

“It's possible that by 2016, there could be seven or eight more states that have legalized marijuana, he said. “Las Vegas has a reputation. Okay, great. So does New Orleans. So does Tampa, for the people who understand — Ybor City is as big a party area as Bourbon Street with just as much vice as Bourbon Street. You look at New York, there's plenty of vice to go around in a city like New York. Denver has the legalized marijuana question.”

Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker said delegates and guests would behave the same in any city as they would in Vegas or Denver.

“Anybody that thinks there’s a city without sin is kidding themselves,” said Spiker. “There’s going to be problems wherever you go.”  

New Jersey Committeeman Bill Palatucci said he’s always worried about “Republicans behaving badly,” but said the only thing he cared about was a central location.

“I would partake in neither,” Palatucci said with a laugh. “But my priority is I'll take any city where I don't have to get on the bus. I love the beach in Tampa and it was wonderful but the bus rides were insufferable.”

“My priority is a venue where we can walk from the hotel to the convention site,” the New Jersey Republican said. “If Colorado wants to [legalize marijuana], that's their business. We're not coming to smoke weed or gamble over our heads.”

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