The Sheldon Adelson Suck-Up Fest

Republican contenders prostrated themselves for the casino mogul's favor—a vivid illustration of who owns the GOP.

The billionaire beckoned, and the Republicans scurried to answer his call.

On Friday night in Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson pulled up to his private airplane hangar in twin powder-blue Maybach limousines. (The second was for his bodyguards.) Inside, the rich and right-wing were gathered to hear from Jeb Bush, a private audience whose exclusivity seemed to signal the former Florida governor's privileged position in the suck-up contest.

Three other Republican leaders—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Ohio Governor John Kasich—were consigned to the public program of the event, which was ostensibly a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But everybody knew what it was really about: impressing Adelson. Like the daughters of King Lear, or the cast of Mean Girls, each sought to outdo the others in his fawning. Christie told of his recent trip to Israel, which, he noted, is "about the same size as New Jersey." Walker mentioned he owns a menorah. Kasich dispensed with the pretense of speaking to the roomful of Republican Jews and addressed his remarks to Adelson directly, as in, “Hey, listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me.”

There was also a Scotch tasting, a poker tournament, and a gala dinner featuring former Vice President Dick Cheney, who defended the National Security Agency and railed against isolationism.

Alas for Walker, Adelson—the chairman and CEO of Sands Corp, owner of the Venetian casino resort where Camp Sheldon was held; proprietor of a fortune valued at nearly $40 billion; and profligate and impulsive funder of Republican causes, notably Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential primary campaign—was not there to hear him speak. He also missed half of Christie’s speech, a speech in which Christie erred by referring to the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied territories.” Not to this crowd, they’re not. Christie was summoned to the master’s lair, where he abjectly apologized—a penance Adelson reportedly accepted.

The political world watched the 80-year-old Adelson zip in and out of the sessions on his motorized scooter, observing closely for signs of his favor. What did it mean that he feted Bush in private, that he snubbed Walker, that he seated Kasich next to him at lunch? What did it mean that these men were in attendance—had he already narrowed the potential field of 2016 candidates to a personal Final Four? Aides to two prominent potential candidates, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, told me they’d been invited but had to decline because of personal commitments. Were they truly otherwise entangled, or were they perhaps disinclined to participate in the spectacle? Spokesmen for the RJC and Adelson declined to tell me what other invitations were extended.

The top item on Adelson’s political agenda is well known—support for Israel and a maximally aggressive approach to American foreign policy, particularly in the Mideast. These days, he has another cause: banning Internet gambling. In a mind-bending display of chutzpah, the casino magnate has concluded that online gaming poses a moral risk to Americans. (Gamblers' virtue is presumably assured if they stick to periodic land pilgrimages to the Venetian and other Sands properties.) Adelson has donated to and hosted fundraisers for Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has suddenly discovered his own inner moral crusader and become the primary sponsor of the bill in Congress to ban Internet gambling. To a question about whether he had been bought, Graham countered“I would say that Sheldon has aligned himself with most Baptists in South Carolina.”

Adelson is also trying to get the 2016 Republican National Convention sited in Las Vegas and is mounting a full-court press for the effort that currently has practically every Nevada Republican insider on its payroll. At a recent Republican National Committee meeting, the campaign wooed delegates with an open bar. Its chairman has called Adelson “a full partner” in the effort; his financial backing of the prospective convention is assumed.

If it happens, the Vegas convention would certainly cement Adelson’s position as de facto owner of the Republican Party. But as far as many of the GOP’s leaders are concerned, it’s clear he’s already there. 

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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