Kin Cheung / AP
Friday, Jan. 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has deployed personal and corporate wealth on political causes for years. But it’s a well-timed $5 million contribution to rescue a faltering Republican presidential campaign that has placed him in the spotlight as a potential kingmaker on the national stage.
Adelson’s donation last week, to supporters of GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, has drawn attention because it helped bankroll distribution of a 28-minute video portraying former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, as a greedy corporatist who rose to wealth on a wave of working-class misery.
It arrived as Gingrich saw his presidential prospects fading and Romney solidifying his hold on the race. The money has allowed the former House speaker and friend of Adelson to extend his campaign through the crucial South Carolina primary.
Without Adelson, Gingrich would no longer be a factor. With him, he may not win, but many expect the impact of Gingrich’s last few weeks on the campaign trail to be felt into the general election.
Adelson has distanced himself from the anti-Romney video.
A source close to Adelson said Adelson had no hand in the strategy of attacking Gingrich’s main rival for the Republican nomination for his capitalist endeavors.
It’s more than a little paradoxical that Adelson — a self-made billionaire and the eighth-richest person in the nation — would help fund the distribution of a video attacking the way Romney made his money. Indeed the documentary furthers a perception of the wealthy that Adelson has tried to dispel.
“I know there’s a perception in life that people who become financially successful do so by climbing up the broken backs of people whose backs they break, but I never climbed up on anybody’s broken back,” Adelson is fond of repeating, according to past news accounts.
The episode has garnered attention for its influence on a presidential race. But it’s typical of Adelson’s approach to politics.
Where fellow pro-business conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch have a sweeping and sophisticated strategy for spending on building their own national political machine, Adelson is more attracted to individual actors and personal relationships.
“Sheldon’s philosophy has been more to contribute to good candidates that he’s trusted to make good decisions rather than being an issue-driven ideologue,” Pete Ernaut, a Republican political consultant, said.
A source involved in Adelson’s decision-making said Adelson backs the candidates and causes with which he identifies, declining to be more specific.
“He’s a passionate person. He cares deeply about the country and the direction of the company. He cares deeply about the future of his children and grandchildren, and he has the means to be able to support those beliefs,” the insider said.
Adelson’s recent contribution to Gingrich isn’t his first. In 2006, he provided $1 million in seed money for Gingrich’s political nonprofit American Solutions for Winning the Future. Since then, he’s donated $7 million to the organization that Gingrich used to build his presidential run, largely on the platform of the Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America that championed issues close to Adelson’s heart — lower taxes, smaller government, a privatized Social Security program and a focus on cultivating entrepreneurialism.
Adelson’s contributions to Gingrich are likely the result of a long-standing friendship. About the same time Gingrich was gathering political power in the U.S. House, Adelson was accumulating wealth and success on the Strip. The two share similar philosophies on government spending and intervention in the private sector and a strong antipathy toward labor unions.
Many in the national media chalked up Adelson’s $5 million assist to Gingrich to their shared hawkish Mideast views.
Shortly before the donation, Gingrich told an interviewer that Palestinians are an “invented people” — a comment Adelson quickly praised. As one source put it, “To the extent Sheldon has a passion outside of making money, his passion is Israel.”
That passion prompted Adelson to launch Israel’s largest daily newspaper, which many credit with helping drive Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to premiership — the most notable display of Adelson’s influence on international politics.
Adelson has a much more mercantile goal with his political spending closer to home.
“His primary focus is business, and he understands the impact of governing on his business,” said a source familiar with Adelson’s political spending. “This is a business cost.”
Forbes estimates that Adelson is worth $21.5 billion. The son of a Boston cabdriver, Adelson was a teenage capitalist, selling newspapers on street corners and launching a vending operation before joining the Army.
His path to extraordinary wealth began when he launched Comdex in Las Vegas, the tech industry’s premier trade convention at the time. The profits from the sale of the trade show financed his purchase of the Sands, which he demolished to build the Venetian.
“I say this really respectfully: He’s always been traditionally independent and a rugged individualist, and to some extent, that is why he got to where he got,” said one gaming industry insider. “When Vegas didn’t want Comdex, Sheldon pushed it on them. That funded the Sands. He pretty much likes to contradict the norm.”
Adelson has feuded with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, seeing the taxpayer-funded entity as a direct threat to his convention facilities. More recently he has opposed legalizing online poker, a major initiative for several Strip casinos.
Only last year did he rejoin the Nevada Resort Association, the industry’s lobbying group.
“Anybody, whether friend or foe, who knows Sheldon, knows he’s really smart, he’s relentless and he’s very passionate about his beliefs,” Ernaut said. “He’s not the kind of guy who will back off on something. If he’s a supporter of yours, you have a strong friend. If he’s an opponent of yours, you have an extremely worthy adversary.”
The Las Vegas Sun interviewed sources in business and politics for this story. Few wanted to go on record. As one person put it: “Who wants to pick a fight with someone whose pockets are deeper than yours?”
Adelson’s political activism hasn’t been as successful here as it has been elsewhere in Nevada.
In 1998, he spent more than $2 million in an attempt to get three Republicans elected to the Clark County Commission. All three lost.
He was a major backer of former Gov. Jim Gibbons, who easily won his first gubernatorial election only to be rendered ineffectual in office because of personal troubles and the state’s sliding economy.
In 2008, an Adelson-supported ballot measure that would have redirected room tax money away from the LVCVA to education and public safety failed to qualify for the ballot.
But while those efforts to nudge Nevada toward his business-friendly worldview have failed, it hasn’t stopped him from pouring money into politics. He’s successfully backed Rep. Joe Heck and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, both Republican.
According to the National Institute in State Politics, Adelson has given $7.6 million to the Nevada Republican Party and Republicans running for state office since 2004.
Adelson can be petulant with his money at times.
“He can be; it’s his,” said one source.
He once pulled a $250,000 donation to his synagogue, after it moved a roast of Mayor Oscar Goodman from the Venetian to another location because Goodman refused to cross the union picket line in Adelson’s fight with the Culinary Union, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Generally, Adelson gives heavily to the Republican Party and its campaign arms — the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Adelson has given nearly $1.1 million to federal campaign committees and candidates since 1996. This cycle alone, he has injected the national GOP with $215,000.
As a political donor, Adelson has, to a certain extent, remained true to his reputation as an individualist in the business arena.
Sources familiar with Adelson’s political spending say he often is the sole decision maker. That was most likely the case with his donation to the Gingrich super PAC.
“Usually the decision is already made,” one source said. “It’s Sheldon coming in the room and saying, ‘I’m writing a $5 million check to Newt’s super PAC.’ And that’s not something you stand in front of and try to stop him from doing.”