The Republican National Committee announced that it has chosen Jacksonville, Florida, as the venue for its convention.
The Florida coronavirus outbreak – the state has reported a sharp increase in COVID-19 deaths – and the later than usual sample of Jacksonville has cast doubt on the party’s ability to convene a major event there to rally supporters, five Republicans familiar with the plan said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal issues.
Republican officials announced last month that Trump would move the high-profile speeches from the Republican National Convention to Jacksonville from Charlotte, NC, after the state Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, introduced a system of on-site protection that could have severely limited the large, television events that Trump wanted.
But that was before the virus increased in Florida, a condition in which more people have tested positive than all but eight nations.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, has since ordered the state’s major arenas to limit capacity to 50 percent, and the city of Jacksonville has demanded that face masks be worn indoors. Republican officials plan to move several events from the city’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arenaand to outdoor areas instead.
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That sense of caution has ballooned despite Trump’s desire to project a back-to-normal image with a glittering, star-studded convention that could help restore presidential elections. Polls suggest the prospective Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who leads in battlefield states, that Trump won narrowly in 2016, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
A major convention would also give Trump a chance to unite an increasingly deceived party.
Republicans have had teams of planners working on Charlotte and Jacksonville events for weeks. GOP members familiar with the project said they remain hopeful that they can produce a full-scale series of convention events, but acknowledged that this may not be possible due to COVID-19.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other officials close to the president have signaled the possibility of downsizing the event itself. After claiming in April that Republicans had “no contingency plan” for a traditional fizzled convention, the same officials have taken it upon themselves to use the word “flexible” to describe their current thinking.
“Well, we’ll see,” Trump said Monday.
On Wednesday, Pence described the incident as “an ongoing work.”
Trump will probably accept the nomination with some form of address, officials said, but the idea of a multi-day event in Jacksonville with hours of speeches and entertainment – the kind of unpleasant show that has marked the presidential nomination conventions for both parties for years – seemed increasingly unlikely. .
Democrats who plan to nominate Biden next month have already stripped down their convention and plan to conduct most of the party’s official activities in practice.
The Republican Party and White House officials said planning for a major event in Jacksonville is continuing in earnest, and there are signs that are true. Jacksonville officials, including the president of the City Council, a Democrat, said national party officials are furiously moving forward with logistics for a full-scale incident.
“We are exploring several options for holding a successful, secure five-star event celebrating President Donald Trump’s nomination for a second term,” Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, told the United States TODAY.
“With outstanding challenges, our teams have worked tirelessly to achieve this goal and we know that when we gather in Jacksonville, the events we hold will show what is good about our country and why President Trump deserves to be re-elected.” he added.
Under the current plan, party officials will hold a series of meetings in Charlotte because the RNC is contractually obligated to do so after it originally chose that city for its convention. Due to coronavirus restrictions, only 336 of the 2,550 delegates will meet in Charlotte to adopt rules, approve a platform and nominate Trump and Pence.
The delegates would then travel to Jacksonville for a series of events August 25-27. It may include the kind of talk of Pence, the first lady and president who tends to drive network news coverage – uniting the convention in the homes of millions of voters.
But so far, party officials have announced only one incident: Trump’s acceptance speech for August 27.
Signs of a problem?
There have already been signs of concern, some of them spreading in the public eye.
One month out, some top Republicans have already said they will skip the event. Then Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at age 86, the oldest Republican senator, said he would avoid the convention “because of the virus situation.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 78, declined to say whether he would run.
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Two Republicans who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal issues cited another potential roadblock: fundraising. It’s tens of millions of dollars to throw an event of the original planned size. Some donors, Republicans said, have been dirty given the spread of the disease.
“I think the most important factor right now is fundraising,” said one Republican.
“There is still time for collection and logistics to succeed,” the person said. “But without a doubt, it will be challenging and stressful for everyone involved, especially depending on how COVID numbers look closer to the convention.”
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former Republican presidential secretary, pushed for Congress. But it is not clear how his order requiring masks would affect it; Trump has mostly avoided facial coatings and notes that they are not required by federal guidance.
DeSantis has meanwhile declined to say whether he will lift the rule requiring indoor seats to remain below 50% capacity – which could deny Trump the large, cheering crowd so central to the stage of a national convention.
“There are a lot of questions – no answers,” said Tommy Hazouri, the Democratic president of the Jacksonville City Council and a former mayor of the city who is pressuring officials for logistical details.
“Right now, everything’s up in the air.”
Party vote assesses the risk
It is not just legislators who have reservations about traveling – possibly to two different cities – during a pandemic. Especially after the Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which local health officials said may have resulted in an increase in cases, party volunteers and delegates who make up the bulk of all conferences face a dilemma.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said Wednesday that he tested positive for coronavirus weeks after taking part in the Trump rally, although he said he thought the two were not related. Trump’s campaign suspended a rally planned for New Hampshire on July 11, citing a tropical storm that ultimately never materialized where he would speak.
Juliana Bergeron is among the RNC committee members who would normally flock to a presidential convention. But Bergeron plans to skip the Jacksonville festivities this year and look closely at the COVID-19 situation in Charlotte before deciding to attend the formal meetings.
“There are enough bacteria in this country. I do not need to bring any new homes, says Bergeron, a 67-year-old financial advisor from New Hampshire. “I do not really feel like being in a crowd that is large at this point.”
But others said they were unconcerned by the threat of coronavirus and were happy to nominate Trump for a second term.
“I’m going to be there with watches on,” said Beth Campbell, of the Tennessee RNC Committee.
Campbell, a senior citizen who would not reveal her age, expects to travel to both Charlotte and Jacksonville, where she has faith party officials will take the precautions needed to keep the convention safe.
“They are looking at every effort to keep it as safe as possible,” she said, “so I have the utmost confidence that this will be done.”
Robin Armstrong, a Texas RNC commissioner, is a doctor in the Houston area who has treated patients with coronavirus. He said he is concerned about the spike in cases but believes the convention can be kept safe.
If guidelines are followed, he said, “We will be fine.”
But it raises another potential concern: the idea of spending a lot of time outdoors in the middle of summer in Florida.
“Let me tell you, the outdoors would be very hot,” said Armstrong, 51, who is planning to make his fourth conference trip. “I think you would have a lot of people who have different thoughts if it was outdoors”
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