Republican officials are grappling with whether they can stomach holding their 2016 nominating convention in Las Vegas, which for many represents pretty much everything that a family values party should be trying to avoid.
The selection of a convention site is the party’s first — and arguably the most important — step in setting the tone for the made-for-television event, which culminates with the introduction of the new presidential ticket to the nation.
Some conservative activists said they don’t see how the GOP can avoid muddling its message if the party holds a convention in a city best known for late-night entertainment and gambling.
“Is the Republican Party still a family values party or not?” said Patrick A. Trueman, president of Morality in Media. “That should answer the question of whether the party should hold its signature event in Sin City.”
But major GOP figures said they aren’t worried about the message a Las Vegas convention would send.
“If the RNC does select Las Vegas, they’ll probably sell out every show for Donny and Marie and Garth Brooks that week,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
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Mr. Reed said the city has plenty to offer outside of the seedier activities, and it already has the stamp of approval from some organizations who make a living out of defending family values.
“Las Vegas has entertainment and recreational offerings suitable for the entire family, and the Southern Baptist Convention and other faith-based organizations have held meetings there for decades,” he said. “So while we will not advocate for any city, we do not believe it is necessary to exclude Las Vegas from the cities to be considered based on a sound and comprehensive criteria.”
The Republican National Committee has tapped a 12-person committee to chose the next convention host. Denver, Phoenix, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio are among the cities jockeying for the honor — though Las Vegas, which has launched an expensive and elaborate marketing campaign, has emerged as the early front-runner. Despite being one of the nation’s premier convention destinations, the Nevada gambling mecca has never hosted a Republican or Democratic national convention, although the Libertarian Party nominated candidate Gary Johnson there in 2012.
“We are going ‘all in’ to get the convention,” James Smack, a national committeeman from Nevada, told The Washington Times.
As part of the effort, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, cut an online video inviting RNC members to come to the “convention capital of the world.”
“By embracing Las Vegas in 2016, we will show the world that our party and our candidates are ready for the future, just as the party did in 1860 when it chose Chicago, another burgeoning western city, to nominate Abraham Lincoln,” Mr. Sandoval said in the two-minute video.
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There’s a political angle as well: Nevada was once seen as a reliably red state, but President Obama won there in both 2008 and 2012, with Hispanic voters providing a major boost. Holding the Republican convention there, city officials argue, would be a sign of the GOP’s determination to contest the growing Hispanic vote in 2016.
Mr. Smack said his sales pitch is based on the idea that Las Vegas has enough hotel rooms within two miles of the two possible convention sites to accommodate the thousands that would converge on the city, and that there are plenty of things for delegates to do, ranging from the well-known entertainment venues on the Las Vegas Strip to the nearby attractions, such as Red Rock Canyon and the Hoover Dam.
Mr. Smack shrugged off the concerns about the city’s immoral side, saying that Las Vegas does not have a monopoly on bad behavior and that should have been clear to delegates who ventured down to Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood during the 2012 convention.
He also said that there are “more stripper bars in Tampa than there are in Las Vegas” and pointed to Clark County’s ban on prostitution, which is legal in many of the state’s rural counties, but not in its two big population centers.
Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire national committeeman who is involved in the site search, said the panel will have to see which proposals come in, and said Las Vegas’ pros and cons will be weighed.
“Some members may have concerns about being in a city known for gambling, but every large city that makes a proposal will have some factor that is stronger or weaker than others,” he said. “We will have to see what proposals come in and compare a long list of factors.”