From his shimmering palace on the Las Vegas Strip, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has become one of the most sought-after figures in the Republican Party.
Many of the Republican presidential candidates have jockeyed to earn his support — and the tens of millions of dollars he would lavish upon their campaign — as he narrows down his choices.
But he has a more complicated relationship with conservatives in Georgia. The mega-donor who single-handedly kept former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign afloat in 2012 also has infuriated some Georgia Republicans with a mission to pave the way for a possible casino expansion. That mission, one person with close ties to Adelson said, could include an investment in the Peach State of at least $2 billion.
It is vintage Adelson, whose brash business strategy and embrace of pro-Israel policies have made him perhaps the GOP’s most important donor. Several of this year’s presidential candidates have traveled to his swanky Venetian hotel here to compete in what’s known in political circles as the “Adelson primary.”
Adelson has a wide web of Georgia contacts at the ready that he could use to press his case. He dropped $20 million on Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, during his presidential bid and he is chairman of the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which also includes Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. And his former top deputy, Mike Leven, is now the chief executive of the Georgia Aquarium.
“He’s a guy with a very good heart,” Leven said. “He’s controversial for sure. He’s dynamic and aggressive. But he makes enormous contributions to every community he’s been in. And that’s what people should be looking at.”
Making a stir
The 82-year-old will need all the help he can get in Georgia. State lawmakers will soon debate whether to legalize casino gambling, which supporters say would funnel tens of millions of additional dollars to the HOPE scholarship and other lottery-funded education programs.
Gambling giant MGM Resorts International has so far been the most public about its dreams of a foothold in Georgia, and its chief executive recently told lawmakers the firm was ready to build a resort in downtown Atlanta that would cost more than $1 billion. Others, including Boyd Gaming and Penn National, have scouted Georgia.
Adelson, though, made a stir when he trekked to Georgia on a quiet Thursday afternoon in September shortly after he apparently abandoned an attempt to build a casino resort in Florida. Among his missions was to push officials not to forget his company, Las Vegas Sands, if gambling is legalized.
His limousine parked outside the Capitol, near a spot usually reserved for Gov. Nathan Deal’s entourage, he spent a few hours meeting with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.
“We talked about his experiences in the business world and specifically as it related to that industry,” said Ralston, who said he’s open to be a debate on gambling next year. “And then, truthfully, we spent a good bit of time talking about the Iran nuclear arrangement. And he gets pretty animated about that. It was a wide-ranging visit.”
Adelson’s appearance ruffled feathers in the governor’s office. Deal, who was on a European trade mission, said Adelson’s camp didn’t give him any notice. Deal has long opposed an expansion of gambling, but he said in an interview after the visit that he would actively urge lawmakers to vote against it.
The governor linked it back to a conversation he had with Adelson last year during a Republican National Lawyers Association meeting in Las Vegas. At the time, Deal was in the midst of a re-election campaign and was believed to be courting Adelson for support. The casino magnate never donated to his campaign.
“The topic came up and I made the comment to him that I did not favor casinos in Georgia. And his comment back to me was that he didn’t either. And that he would oppose any effort in our state,” Deal said. “And obviously something has changed. But it doesn’t change my opinion. I’m still opposed to it.”
The governor’s stance is being carefully watched by wary lawmakers, who have defeated previous proposals to allow horse racing and to expand gambling in Georgia. State Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, is still undecided on the debate, but he said that Deal’s caution is telling.
“He doesn’t shy away from taking a position and leading,” Harrell said. “And now that he’s suggested he’s got a long way to go, I respect that.”
Pro-Israel and pro-gambling
Adelson, whose office didn’t return requests for comment, made his fortune when he netted $500 million by selling the COMDEX computer trade show to a Japanese firm in 1995. He parlayed that into a casino empire with a string of resorts in Vegas, Macau and Singapore. Forbes estimates that his net worth now tops $26 billion — giving him room to spend.
In the political world, he’s probably most known for his staunch pro-Israel support. He founded a free newspaper in Israel that he used to champion Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and skewer anyone who dared cross him.
In the U.S., he and his wife, Miriam, became the biggest donors in the 2012 cycle, doling out at least $93 million to super PACs supporting Gingrich, Mitt Romney and other conservative causes. The stance on Israeli politics was at the center of his calculus, and Gingrich passed the test three years ago.
The two first met in 1995 when Adelson was lobbying for a bill that would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, long a sticking point in Israeli politics.
Gingrich, who didn’t return calls seeking comment for this story, said during his campaign that Adelson firmly believed that Iranians presented a mortal threat to Israel and the U.S., and that he was “deeply motivated” to make sure Iran didn’t obtain nuclear weapons.
Most top Republican contenders have courted Adelson in this cycle, too, and Politico reported this month that Adelson is leaning toward Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. That led front-runner Donald Trump to suggest Adelson must feel “he can mold him into his perfect little puppet.”
Randy Evans, a longtime adviser to Gingrich and Deal, said he expected Adelson’s interest in Georgia to be much like his involvement in presidential politics: tough and exacting.
“You don’t let your competitors get ahead of you. That’s the way he is,” Evans said. “He’s never going to get left behind. He makes sure he knows what’s going on and where it’s going. He knows every detail. And Georgia will be no different.”
Leven, his former top deputy, said he expects Adelson to pitch a $2 billion resort — one that would exceed MGM’s promise of at least a $1 billion investment — that would be an “architectural wonder” to attract droves of tourists and upper-crust Georgians to downtown.
“I know Sheldon as well as anybody. Sheldon’s a very passionate guy,” Leven said. “He does what he says and he’s proud of it. I would have no fear if I were the state or the city.”
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