Monday, May 26, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sheldon Adelson is being taught some blunt lessons about politics after aggressively inserting himself into state and national races this year.
The majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands and leading Republican fundraiser, who hasn’t been so publicly involved in politics since 1998, has himself become an issue in several House races across the country and could be targeted in many more.
Adelson money — Forbes ranks him the 12th-richest man in the world — is pushing three ballot questions before Nevada voters. One would require two-thirds of voters to approve tax increases that appear as ballot questions. Anti-tax crusaders love the initiative and are no doubt thankful for Adelson’s support. The others would divert room tax money from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to schools and other public priorities — and would help him damage the agency, which he has long held is a quasi-government boondoggle.
Adelson’s donations to conservative groups such as Freedom’s Watch and the presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain have added to his influence in national Republican politics and will mean the ear of the president if McCain prevails over the Democratic nominee, either Illinois Sen. Barack Obama or New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
But for all his good intentions for Republicans, he has given the Democratic opposition several new lines of attack.
Among them: his own testimony in a high-profile lawsuit that unveiled inner workings of his company, and the revelation that Israeli police questioned him in an ongoing corruption probe of the prime minister there, Ehud Olmert. (Adelson is only tangentially involved and not suspected of wrongdoing, but an unscrupulous political consultant could still make hay.)
An Adelson political consultant directed calls to Las Vegas Sands. A spokesman for Las Vegas Sands did not return a phone call last week seeking comment for this story.
In special congressional elections in Mississippi and Louisiana, Adelson found himself serving as a punching bag after supporting the Republican candidates. Sun partner Politico, a Washington, D.C., Web magazine, pointed out recently that Democrats are trying to turn Adelson into the conservative equivalent of George Soros, the wealthy financier and boogeyman of the right.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran ads on Christian radio stations in the two races tying the Republican candidates to Adelson, calling him “the world’s No. 1 casino czar and one of atheist China’s top American business partners.” China, the ad continued, is a country “that steals our jobs, persecutes Christians, uses forced labor and forces women to have abortions.”
Adelson has further vulnerabilities on China, as revealed in a Hong Kong businessman’s civil claim that he was denied millions of dollars that were promised in exchange for arranging a valuable gaming license. On Saturday a jury awarded the man $43.8 million, providing what could be more fodder for Democratic attacks.
On the stand, Adelson said company President William Weidner had violated his fiduciary duty to the company’s shareholders before retracting the statement later. He also testified he’d called former House Majority Leader Tom Delay to get the Texas Republican to quash a House resolution condemning the choice of Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. (Delay denies it.)
Political analysts say the Democrats’ tough approach is effective only to a point.
Mark Montini, a Republican consultant, said tying a candidate to a donor is good for changing the topic. So if a Democratic candidate is in trouble on some issue, roll out an Adelson ad and change the topic. Or if the candidate has had a good week but the well is beginning to look dry, roll out an Adelson ad. Or, if a candidate is on the ropes, his credibility threatened, pile on with the Adelson ad.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster, said most voters understand campaigns cost money and don’t generally care too much where a candidate gets it. Still, he said, the ads could have had some effect in damping down Republican turnout. A spokeswoman for the Democrats’ campaign committee said this indeed was the strategy and said it worked well. (The Republicans lost both special election races and have lost three this year.)
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said these types of attacks on a candidate’s donor add to the negative noise the besieged candidate must break through to get his message across.
Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said such ads are a waste of time and money: “When they’re not talking about the issues or the candidates running, it’s better for us.”
A Republican pollster, who asked not to be named discussing a big GOP donor, said the ads were likely an illustration of bitterness about Adelson’s big resources and constant presence, much as Republicans were angered by Soros’ bottomless well of money. That blinding anger, the pollster said, has distracted Democrats from directly attacking the candidate or his issues.
Perhaps, but the approach of the Democratic committee suggests a growing level of aggressiveness by targeting not just Republican candidates but their donors as well. And in this political season, the Democrats have the resources to employ the strategy even in races thought to be safely Republican.
For his part, Adelson flexed his resources over the weekend. He flew in a group of injured veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a Memorial Day weekend on the Strip — a generous gesture bound to burnish his image as the campaign unfolds.
Sun Washington correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story.