Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Adelson’s return on political investment lacking


Christopher DeVargas

Las Vegas Sands CEO and Chairman Sheldon Adelson, shown in this April 26, 2012, file photo, is backing a Republican group trying to persuade Jewish voters in battleground states to support presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson spent an awful lot of money trying to get Republicans elected to the White House and the U.S. Senate this year.

In political parlance, Adelson and his team lost.

Democrat Barack Obama is installed for a second term, and Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate.

In business parlance, that’s a poor return on investment.

By most calculations, Adelson became the largest Republican donor this year. According to the last count from the Center for Responsive Politics, Adelson gave $53 million to GOP candidates and organizations this year.

And that’s just the money that can be publicly accounted for. Adelson also reportedly pledged to give so-called “dark money” groups — those that exploit campaign finance loopholes to hide their donors — as much as $20 million.

By his own admission, Adelson’s plan was to spend up to $100 million — a fraction of the $20 billion he’s worth — influencing politics this year.

“They wanted to take back the Senate and beat Obama,” one Democratic source said. “And they didn’t do it.”

The Sunlight Foundation analyzed the money spent by the types of organizations Adelson liked to give to and found a poor track record. American Crossroads, for example, spent 1.29 percent of its money on successful efforts nationally. To put it another way, 98.71 percent of its money went toward either supporting candidates who lost or opposing candidates who won. Its sister organization Crossroads GPS spent 14.4 percent of its money on successful campaigns, the Sunlight Foundation found, meaning 85.6 percent of its money went to unsuccessful efforts.

Politics isn’t synonymous with business, necessarily. One side wins and one side loses in politics. And this was a big year for Democrats for a variety of reasons, including a superior turnout organization and the luck of drawing flawed opponents in many races.

Still, it’s a relevant question to ask: Were the millions contributed by Adelson and other billionaires like him well-spent?

“It’s a good question,” said one Republican operative, even as he bristled at the notion the money may have been a waste. “It’s one that donors and candidates and operatives alike will have to answer.

“But it’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback this stuff.”

Look at it in reverse, the operative said, pointing to one of a few successful races that Crossroads spent money in: the Nevada Senate bout between Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Shelley Berkley.

“If they hadn’t been there, maybe Shelley Berkley would’ve been elected,” he said.

Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson defended the record this way: “Senate Democrats leveraged the power of the incumbency to drastically outraise Republican challengers by $40 million. GOP super PACs like American Crossroads helped level the playing field to make these races competitive.”

Crossroads’ affiliation with Karl Rove, the brain behind George W. Bush's political success who founded the group in 2010, is what attracted many of the millions Adelson spent.

“It’s not like he just wrote blank checks,” the Republican operative said. “There was obviously a pitch. And when you have a pitch being made by Karl Rove, who is one of the top political operatives in the country, that’s significant.

“But (Rove's) reputation was affected by this. I’m not sure he can go in and make a pitch and ask for more and more money now.”

Just how the groups spent their money has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Republican defeat. Crossroads, for example, wrote off running a ground game — an organized effort to turn out voters — feeling it would be inefficient because outside groups legally cannot coordinate with campaigns.

Indeed, Las Vegas was a test case for the turnout operation in 2010 on behalf of Republican Sharron Angle in the U.S. Senate race. It didn’t work.

This go-round, Crossroads sunk most of its money into television advertising. It’s easier to unofficially coordinate with a campaign’s message on television by piggy-backing on ads the campaign is already running or using the messaging coming out of the campaign itself.

But so many ads were running in battleground states such as Nevada, they soon became background noise to many voters.

That’s not to say the strategy is an utter failure.

Crossroads posed a huge problem to Democrat Steven Horsford, who was running in a heavily Democratic congressional district against an opponent with huge name recognition.

Horsford continually struggled to raise enough money to stay on television. He ran only one campaign ad — the rest were jointly funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Crossroads, with its almost unlimited funding, could swing into the void — as it did in the presidential race for Mitt Romney and the U.S. Senate race for Heller.

“What’s frustrating is they can just drop $500,000 on the air,” one Democratic operative said. “It can take a candidate two months to raise what these guys can find by digging in the couch.”

Timing that $500,000 is what makes the outside groups effective.

“When they’re strategic, when they’re filling the gap (by going up early) or tracking when a candidate’s point buys go down and coming in to add capacity ... they can have an impact,” the Democratic operative said.

And that’s the reason it’s unlikely the billionaires will take their money out the political arena.

“I doubt there was any regret in the amount of money Adelson spent,” a Republican operative said. “Maybe he’s not completely happy with the way it was spent, in retrospect. But we are all geniuses after the election.”

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