Sheldon Adelson (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Str)

Pulling the strings

As conservative Nevadans choose on Tuesday who they'd like to see as their party's presidential nominee, the candidates await the verdict of influential casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Lars Gesing reports from Washington.

Almost two years before Republican voters in Nevada on Tuesday will get their pick for the Republican nomination, Las Vegas gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson held his own caucus. The GOP mega donor, who in 2012 put down close to $100 million (90 million euros) of his own money to get a Republican elected to the White House, held a glitzy multi-day confab summoning conservative presidential hopefuls to Sin City's Venetian, a place he owns and operates.

What was off the cuff dubbed the "Sheldon Primary" was officially the March 2014 spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Son of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Sheldon Adelson, an 82-year-old Boston-born right-wing pro-Israel foreign policy hawk without a college degree, has come a long way from having to sleep on floors. Today a $27 billion wealth amassed via moneys from his gambling empire, which spans the entire globe from Las Vegas to Macau off the Chinese mainland, doesn't just buy the finest linen. It also guarantees substantial influence over ambitious politicians courting his coffers.

A conservative kingmaker?

"In 2012 Adelson was a strong backer of [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich, but Gingrich did fairly poorly in the Nevada caucuses," said Eric Herzik, a Reno-based political commentator, attempting to dissuade the notion of Adelson as a Republican kingmaker. But: "He kept Gingrich's campaign afloat for at least a month longer than Gingrich could have done without his help," Herzik told DW. All told, Adelson committed $15 million to the former House Speaker's long shot primary bid.

This cycle, after an unsuccessful 2012 Gingrich bonanza and a subsequent $30 million investment in the by then heavily-bruised nominee Mitt Romney, Adelson is pursuing a new strategy: keeping up the suspense. So far, he hasn't publicly made up his mind which horse to back - leaving a major milestone for any Oval Office-seeker up in the air. One reason for that is that Adelson is currently preoccupied with a legal battle, fighting off allegations of bribery and other corruption at his Macau casinos, prompting the question whether illegal Chinese gambling money is finding its way into US politics.

USA Vorwahl Republikaner in South Carolina - Marco Rubio
Rubio stands with Israel and has co-sponsored a bill to ban online gaming - two crucial issues for AdelsonImage: Reuters/C. Keane

Confidantes have also shared the billionaire's aggravation over the long woozy Republican candidate pool as another reason for his hesitance. Adelson has hinted at a certain fondness for Florida Senator Marco Rubio as an electable candidate who stands with Israel and has co-sponsored a bill in the Senate to ban online gaming, another one of the billionaire's pet issues.

But the casino mogul's wife is said to support Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who led the fight against the Iran nuclear deal. It is unlikely that the power couple will soon get behind frontrunner Donald Trump, whose Las Vegas hotel complex sits just a short walk from Adelson's Venetian.

Buying influence

Adelson's unapologetic support for Israel stems from growing up in the dark shadows of the Holocaust days, getting beaten up as kid for being Jewish as well as marrying his second wife, Miriam Ochshorn, an Israeli-born doctor.

When Adelson's friend, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed the US Congress last fall to make the case against the Iran nuclear deal, he and his wife had prime seats in the House gallery. And when "Bibi" fought a close race for re-election at home, Adelson used his own local newspaper there - Israel Hayom (Israel Today) - to spread Netanyahu's racially-charged paroles of "Arab voters heading to the polls in droves," hoping to help lift his powerful ally over the finish line.

Adelson recently also bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada's largest newspaper, for $140 million, eliciting fears that the paper would soon be transformed into another Sheldonian mouthpiece.

A man unlike other mega donors

US observers differ over Adelson's single-issue approach to shaping presidential politics.

The liberal-leaning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Adelson the personification of "everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel's today - swaggering oligarchs, using huge sums of money to try to bend each system to their will."

Miriam Ochshorn and Sheldon Adelson (photo: Getty Images/W. McNamee)
Adelson has not officially endorsed a candidate yet, while his wife is said to support Texas Senator CruzImage: Getty Images/W. McNamee

But Nevada commentator Eric Herzik said the what's-in-it-for-me question isn't Adelson's mainspring.

"It's often far more personal - and that cuts both positively and negatively," he said. "Adelson will back an issue that is important to him, that he just thinks it's the right thing to do. At the same time, if people run afoul of him, he goes after them and can certainly hold a grudge. It is not as calculating as, say, the Koch Brothers."

Unlike the aforementioned siblings with their massively sophisticated spider web of conservative organizations, Adelson and his wife run a "decidedly mom-and-pop political operation," as the Big Apple gazette New York Magazine once wrote. There, the author described in vivid detail how except for his wife and an elderly secretary by the name of Beverly who isn't quite web-affine, Adelson has barely any organization to coordinate his political spending. That's how the wayward billionaire wants it, even if it necessitates a willingness to lose a lot of money.

On the other hand, such a characteristic then again closes the cycle to other financial power players in US politics, all for whom spending power equals mostly calling shots.

"I don't cry when I lose," Adelson once said. "There is always a new hand coming up."