Stagnant Economy, Isaac Put Damper on Partying in Tampa

Coral Davenport

The Republican National Convention historically has been known as one big pull-out-all-the-stops party, marked by lavish galas and fundraisers (such as antitax lobbyist Grover Norquist’s lush reception at the New York City Yacht Club in 2004) and decadent blowouts (like Meghan McCain’s packed 2008 party at the Bar Fly club in Minneapolis featuring half-dressed go-go dancers and soft-core adult videos on giant-screen TVs).  

This year—with a stagnant economy and stubbornly high unemployment rate, an injection of tea party populism, and now, the damper of Tropical Storm Isaac—the official GOP convention party scene has been significantly dialed down.

Norquist, for example, canceled his “Back to the ’80s” bash celebrating Reaganomics. “Why would [you] ask for money for an event when you’re also asking for money for TV commercials for races? To a certain extent, you want everything going for the race,” he told Convention Daily.

Also sapping enthusiasm for the mainstream Republican Party (and parties) was this year’s surge of support for the candidacy of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, whose fired-up supporters held an alternate three-day “Paulfest” in Tampa.  

Worries about Issac’s impact led to the cancellation of about a dozen parties and events, including a Sunday night Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Still, that hasn’t stopped the slew of corporate donors and interest groups from shelling out for candidate fundraisers, concerts, and events the rest of this week, featuring performers like Kid Rock, Journey, and Gavin McGraw—although most of those are invitation-only events not open to the public. And those used to the hard-partying vein of the convention should be well served by Tampa’s famous strip clubs, which have reportedly been gearing up for a weeklong boom.

Norm Coleman, the former Republican Senator from Minnesota, who now heads up the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, was among those deeply disappointed by the cancellation of the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.  “The good news, Kid Rock isn’t until Wednesday night—that’s the hottest ticket.”

The result of all this is a surreal mix of corporate events, discreet but high-figure fundraisers, and, incongruously, Willie Nelson—now mixed with the threat of tropical gale-force winds.

In years past, political conventions have drawn major celebrities (although admittedly, Democratic conventions tend to pull more Hollywood star power than Republicans). This year, the celebrity wattage is fairly dim: The Creative Coalition, which lobbies for the interests of Hollywood, is sponsoring events with comedienne Carol Kane and actors Tim Daly of Private Practice, Evan Handler of Californication, Rachael Harris of Reno 911!, and August T. Jones of Two and Half Men, although it did book ’70s supergroup Journey for a Thursday-night bash following Mitt Romney’s speech.

A look through the interest groups and sponsors funding the parties reveals a lot about the priorities of the GOP. Prominent among them is a focus on Latinos, as Republicans wage a push to win that crucial bloc, which could help make the difference in this crucial swing state. The American Conservative Union’s “Nuestra Noche” party at the Cuban Club in Ybor City is set to go forward on Monday night despite the storm, with a guest list that includes GOP Hispanic leaders Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Actress Rosario Dawson is addressing the Hispanic Leadership Network on Tuesday.

Military and veterans themes are also prominent. The veteran-advocacy group Got Your 6 scored hippie icon Nelson for a Wednesday concert—a surprising choice to some, though Nelson does share with the tea party an aversion to taxes.   

Among the biggest corporate sponsors of this week’s party is the energy industry. A coalition called “America’s Energy 2012”—funded by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities; the Nuclear Enterprise Institute; and the American Gas Association—is hosting dozens of parties and events, as is the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s lobbying arm.

Jack Gerard, the chief lobbyist for API, is hosting the institute’s biggest party of the week, a celebration on Thursday that is also set to follow Romney’s speech. Rumors are swirling that a Romney family member might drop by that event. But even then, not all Republicans are amped up about that prospect, given the famously clean-living reputation of the nominee.

Asking for anonymity, one GOP operative said, “It does seem to be a little awkward to have a giant throw-down when the nominee does not partake.”