Could Jacksonville play host to 2020 Republican National Convention?

As Trump threatens move from North Carolina, mayor, governor say bring it on down to Florida

As Trump threatens move from North Carolina, mayor, governor say bring it on down to Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After President Donald Trump threatened Monday to pull the Republican National Convention out of North Carolina, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and leading members of the Republican party in Florida, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, said they are ready to step up to host the convention.

Trump said if North Carolina’s Democratic governor doesn’t immediately sign off on allowing a full-capacity gathering in August, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the RNC will be held elsewhere.

Curry said Jacksonville is ready to step in as a replacement location.

He pointed to the recent success of the UFC event at Vystar Veterans Arena as evidence that the city “has strongly demonstrated the ability to host large events in a safe and responsible way.”

He said the “world-class facility” would be a good fit for the RNC, adding that his administration and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “have created a regulatory framework that operates in way that is attractive to significant events like these.”

Curry told News4Jax the city would have to work with hotels and “every housing option available."

“This is preliminary, but I believe it’s important to always be open for business, particularly at this time as we work our way through the pandemic, as we prepare to say, 'We can host events in a smart, safe, effective, responsible way,” Curry said.

It would take some work to make the move happen. The convention is slated to start in 89 days and could draw 50,000 visitors.

The head of Visit Jacksonville believes the city could handle the crowds with 80,000 hotel rooms.

News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney of JU’s Public Policy Institute said a convention in Jacksonville would benefit not just the city but also the president.

“Given what is happening in Florida, Florida would be very, very attractive in terms of lower count on the virus compared to the outbreaks in some places,” Mullaney said. “And remember this, we are the biggest prize in November. This is a swing state and it is the biggest swing state.”

The Republican Party of Florida also pointed to Florida’s position as a swing state -- and as Trump’s current home state -- when it backed the idea of moving the RNC to Florida.

That’s the main reason Dean Black, the head of the Republican Party of Duval County, said they floated the idea of bringing the convention to Jacksonville in the first place.

“We need to volunteer ourselves for service. The Charlotte convention started to be called into question. The president needed an option, and we wanted to make sure President Trump has that option and to know that he has a really good option,” Black said. “This is a battleground county in the battleground state. It would be an excellent political move and we can absolutely do it.”

DeSantis weighed in Tuesday on the idea of moving any convention to Florida.

“The door’s open. We want to have the conversation, whether it’s RNC, DNC, whatever because I think it would be good for the people of Florida," he said during a news conference in Miami. “With the pandemic coming, we lost out on some of our traditional events that we normally do, some of the golf tournaments, tennis, we had Wrestlemania scheduled for April, which people don’t realize, is hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity, so I think that would be great.”

Gov. Brian Kemp also threw the Peach State into the mix for the RNC, tweeting that Georgia has “world-class facilities, restaurants, hotels and workforce” and asking Trump to consider Georgia if the venue changes.

Trump threatens move

Trump’s tweets on Monday about the upcoming RNC in Charlotte came two days after North Carolina’s largest daily increase in virus cases yet.

On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper moved the state into a second reopening phase by loosening restrictions on hair salons, barbers and restaurants. But he said the state must move cautiously, and he kept indoor entertainment venues, gyms and bars closed.

“Unfortunately, Democrat Governor, @RoyCooperNC is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed... full attendance in the Arena,” Trump tweeted Monday.

He added that Republicans “must be immediately given an answer by the Governor as to whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied. If not, we will be reluctantly find, with all of the jobs and economic development it brings, another Republican National Convention site.”

Pre-pandemic, the GOP had estimated 50,000 would come to Charlotte for the convention centered around its NBA arena.

Cooper's office responded that state officials are working with the GOP on convention decisions.

“State health officials are working with the RNC and will review its plans as they make decisions about how to hold the convention in Charlotte,” Cooper spokeswoman Dory MacMillan said in an email. “North Carolina is relying on data and science to protect our state’s public health and safety.”

Vice President Mike Pence said Monday on Fox News Channel that convention planning takes months and suggested a state that's loosened more restrictions could host. He praised reopenings in Texas, Florida and Georgia -- all states with Republican governors.

Calling Trump's remarks “a very reasonable request," Pence told Fox that "having a sense now is absolutely essential because of the immense preparations that are involved, and we look forward to working with Governor Cooper, getting a swift response and, if needs be, if needs be, moving the national convention to a state that is farther along on reopening and can say with confidence that we can gather there.”

Changing sites would be difficult for reasons including the contract between GOP officials and Charlotte leaders to hold the convention there. In April, the City Council voted to accept a $50 million federal grant for convention security. Before the vote, City Attorney Patrick Baker noted the overall contract requires parties to follow applicable laws and regulations, including Cooper's executive orders. Cooper’s current order limits indoor gatherings to 10 people. Baker said then that GOP officials had discussed convention alternatives but did not elaborate.

A week ago, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel vowed on a call with reporters that the convention slated for Aug. 24-27 would be held at least partly in person.

During a subsequent Charlotte-area visit, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sounded less certain when discussing convention preparations. He did not refer to a traditional in-person convention as a certainty, but rather noted that “we’re several months away from the possibility of the RNC.” Azar also praised Cooper's reopening moves.

The state reported nearly 24,000 positive cases Monday, a daily increase of about 740. On Saturday, the state reported 1,100 new cases, its biggest daily jump. Monday’s state tally includes about 750 deaths and 600 current hospitalizations.

Before Monday, Cooper and Trump had displayed little friction during the pandemic. While Cooper has urged the federal government to provide more testing supplies and protective gear, he's avoided criticizing Trump by name. Trump, meanwhile, has largely refrained from calling out Cooper as he has other Democratic governors.

Cooper narrowly beat an incumbent Republican in 2016 while Trump won the state. In this year’s gubernatorial election, Cooper faces Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has urged a faster reopening of businesses.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.