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October 13, 2015

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Berkley-Adelson feud has potential to alter politics on a national level


Shelly Berkley and Sheldon Adelson have a feud that goes back to the 1990s, when Berkley served as his vice president for legal and government affairs. Adelson fired Berkley in 1997.

In the years since he had employee Shelley Berkley escorted from the building after a high-profile falling out, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has spent a fair amount of his billions meddling in her political races.

Often, the spending amounted to little more than a poke in the eye fueled by personal animosity for an old foe.

Take for instance the robocalls that Adelson’s political nonprofit Freedom’s Watch sent into Berkley’s congressional district in 2008.

The calls, which attacked her on veterans’ issues, seemed oddly placed. With an incumbent’s iron grip on a heavily Democratic district, Berkley stood no chance of losing that race.

Still, Adelson reportedly directed at least some resources into making her life difficult during that campaign.

This year is different.

For perhaps the first time since the pair’s public falling out, Adelson’s money poses a potential threat to Berkley, who faces the most difficult campaign of her political career.

Her bid for the U.S. Senate against Republican Dean Heller is expected to be close and a race that could change which party controls the Senate — and will draw millions of dollars in outside spending.

Adelson’s millions, no doubt, will be among them.

“His role in the U.S. Senate race will be substantial,” said a Republican operative familiar with Adelson’s political spending. “This time it’s even more important because his contributions could mean a lot more, not just in the outcome of Berkley’s race, but in the entire makeup of the U.S. Senate.”

Adelson has already made a name for himself as a political donor this cycle. He and his family spent about $20 million supporting Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. Politico also reports Adelson has given $5 million to a political committee aimed at guarding the Republican majority in the House.

Adelson’s role in funding Republican causes is philosophical — he’s a pro-Israel, low-tax fiscal conservative. In Gingrich’s case, his friendship with the candidate and the pair’s affinity on U.S. policy toward Israel fueled the $20 million.

But while Adelson has an interest in seeing Republicans take over the Senate, in the Nevada race, it’s also personal.

“Look, he spent $20 million on Gingrich and he didn’t even dislike Mitt Romney or anybody else in the race,” said a Democratic operative. “I think he is going to spend as much as he wants, or as much as he thinks he needs to spend, to beat her.”

The feud between the pair dates back to the late 1990s, when Berkley served as his vice president for legal and government affairs.

As a Democrat with strong union ties, Berkley never really saw eye-to-eye with Adelson on politics. But the philosophical differences didn’t really become a problem until he became more active politically and started spending money in races against Berkley’s friends.

The disagreements came to a head in May 1997, when Adelson — in a rather demonstrable fashion — fired Berkley. The pair then fought publicly, deepening the rift.

In 1998, Adelson spent heavily against Berkley in her first congressional run. During the campaign, memos and an audio tape also emerged in which Berkley advised Adelson to give favors to judges and county commissioners in return for favorable treatment.

Despite Adelson’s efforts, Berkley won that race fairly easily.

The road ahead for Berkley in the Senate race isn’t so easy.

Polls in the Senate race show Heller and Berkley neck and neck. She has a potential recognition problem in Northern Nevada, where she isn’t particularly well known. He has a challenge in blunting her popularity in Clark County.

Click to enlarge photo

Dean Heller

Most observers expect the race will depend heavily on the strength of the two parties’ presidential campaigns and expect that it will draw a considerable amount of outside spending as both parties battle for control of the U.S. Senate.

Neither the Berkley nor Heller campaigns had much, if anything, to say about Adelson. Heller’s campaign didn’t respond to questions before deadline.

Berkley’s campaign spokesman Eric Koch said she is focused on other issues, such as creating jobs and “standing up to Washington politicians.”

But Democratic sources caution against overstating the impact of Adelson’s money in a race that is going to draw significant outside spending no matter what. That spending, and spending in the presidential race, will quickly saturate Nevada airwaves, making it difficult for Adelson to fund television ads.

Democrats also relish the thought of turning the race into a Berkley versus Adelson campaign.

“Is it easier to go up against easy-going, good-looking Dean Heller or a billionaire who is trying to buy a Senate seat?” said one Democratic operative. “If (Adelson) gets that level of visibility, if he becomes the issue, it could actually be a benefit to her.”

Republicans dismiss the idea that Adelson’s money won’t make a difference in the race. He is becoming an increasingly important Republican donor — one who Republicans will want to keep happy.

“You have a donor who has said he might spend $100 million this cycle, and so far he’s only spent a fifth of that,” said a Republican strategist. “And he’s here in the state to see how it is actually spent.”

Still, even though Democrats try to distract from Adelson’s potential influence in the race, they acknowledge he’ll be a factor.

“Yeah, it’ll be her toughest race,” the Democratic strategist said, “for a lot of reasons. Sheldon’s only one of them.”

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