Politics

How the Republican convention created money woes in two cities

A bartender wearing a face mask tends to customers in Jacksonville, Fla. on June 29, 2020. Organizers are finding that raising money to stage the Republican convention in Florida is a “tough sell” as donors wait and worry about the safety risks of the pandemic. (Malcolm Jackson/The New York Times)
Malcolm Jackson/The New York Times
Customers were sparse recently at a bar in Jacksonville, Fla. Organizers for the Republican National Convention are finding that raising money to stage it in Florida is a “tough sell” as donors wait and worry about the safety risks of the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — The abrupt uprooting of the Republican National Convention from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., has created a tangled financial predicament for party officials as they effectively try to pay for two big events instead of one.

Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent in a city that will now host little more than a GOP business meeting, and donors are wary of opening their wallets again to bankroll a Jacksonville gathering thrown into uncertainty by a surge in coronavirus cases.

Organizers are trying to assuage vexed Republicans who collectively gave millions of dollars for a Charlotte event that has mostly been scrapped. The host committee there has spent virtually all of the $38 million it raised before the convention was moved, leaving almost nothing to return to donors or to pass on to the new host city.

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In Jacksonville, fund-raisers are describing the process as the most difficult they have ever confronted: Florida has been setting daily records for new virus cases, freezing money as donors wait and worry about the safety risks of the pandemic.

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“I don’t want to encourage people getting sick,” said Stanley S. Hubbard, a Minnesota billionaire who has donated more than $2 million to help Republicans, including President Trump, since the beginning of the 2016 election.

Hubbard, who donated $25,000 to the RNC’s convention account in 2018, is hesitant to give to the Jacksonville host committee because he thinks it is ill advised to hold the convention in the midst of a pandemic. “Unless this thing goes away, I think it’s a bad choice,” he said.

The threat of the virus and the complicated financial entanglements are just the latest problems to beset an event that Trump upended last month, after concluding that Charlotte could not guarantee the celebratory coronation he covets. The sudden acrimonious split with Charlotte — and the scramble in Jacksonville to organize in weeks an event that typically takes years — has produced mounting confusion about what the convention will look like and who will pay to help stage it.

Organizers are not holding their breath for generous contributions from big donors, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner, who has given to host committees in the past but has not indicated he plans to support the Jacksonville event. Instead, they are working down long lists of donors who might be willing to give smaller amounts.

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But the virus has proved to be a debilitating impediment for Jacksonville. Florida had recorded almost 180,000 total coronavirus cases through Friday, and the surge in the last month has been dramatic. After reporting 667 new cases on June 1, the state has had more than 5,000 every day since June 24, including more than 10,000 Thursday. Hospitals across the state have started to sound the alarm about becoming overburdened.

Trump shunned Charlotte because North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, would not promise to forgo safety measures such as distancing and mask-wearing. In Florida, lawmakers had seemed intent on offering him as unfettered a convention as possible, though in recent days the city of Jacksonville began requiring masks in indoor public settings, a stipulation that will presumably apply at the convention.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who has helped raise money for Trump in the past, said the Jacksonville convention was “a tough sell,” noting that “many donors’ businesses are severely impacted by the virus and large corporations have pulled in their horns on spending.”

Eberhart is planning to attend the convention, and said he had been approached by the Jacksonville host committee about donating, but hasn’t decided whether to do so. “There are so many variables right now,” he said.

By the time Trump decided to move the convention, almost all of the money raised by the Charlotte host committee had been spent on expenses such as salaries, insurance and prepayments on contracts.

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“It’s certainly a challenge,” said Edward E. Burr, a real estate developer and member of the Jacksonville host committee.

In Jacksonville, fund-raisers are describing the process as the most difficult they have ever confronted.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, which supervises the convention, said in a statement that her team “will be providing a safe, first-rate experience for convention goers, and we have a highly-skilled team working around the clock to make that happen.”

Big corporate donors that typically make $1 million contributions do so because they want to capitalize on social and branding opportunities at an event that draws lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders. But right now, it’s not clear to them what the Jacksonville proceedings will look like.

Burr said it was still far from clear exactly what the final show will offer, or how many people will attend Trump’s renominating speech, which is scheduled for Aug. 27. Even some members of the host committee in Jacksonville are privately wondering if the city and the RNC have a Plan B — actually, a Plan C — as they watch the number of coronavirus cases in their state rise.

“This path is a twisty path,” Burr said. “A lot of things continue to change.”