Just three months ago, with Newt Gingrich trailing four other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, the former House Speaker appeared in Las Vegas at Mundo, a Mexican restaurant, for a $500-a-plate fundraiser.
“I promise you one thing,” Gingrich told the crowd. “The day I become president is the day that entrepreneurs are going to be able to smile again.”
Grinning at the head table was casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, chief executive officer of Las Vegas Sands Corp., and his wife, Miriam. They gave Gingrich a standing ovation, according to George Harris, a finance co-chairman of Gingrich’s campaign and organizer of the event. It was a boost at a time when an October Gallup poll showed Gingrich with only 7 percent of the vote.
“No one gave Newt a chance,” Harris said in a telephone interview.
Adelson, 78, and Miriam, 66, have contributed $10 million in recent weeks to a political action committee fueling Gingrich’s primary battles in South Carolina and Florida. While the Adelsons and Gingrich have similar opinions on limiting government spending and reducing taxes, they share a bond in their support of Israel, according to Harris.
“Sheldon Adelson is very deeply concerned about the survival of Israel,” Gingrich, 68, told reporters while campaigning today in Cocoa, Florida. “I promised him I would seek to defend the United States and the United States’s allies.”
Adelson gave $5 million to Winning Our Future, the Lawrenceville, Georgia-based independent political-action committee run by Gingrich’s former aides. Known as a super-PAC, such a group isn’t limited by campaign finance laws and donation limits, though federal law prohibits coordination between super-PACs and candidates.
Winning Our Future bought the video “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” which highlighted job losses at businesses taken private when Romney -- depicted as “more ruthless than Wall Street” -- headed Bain Capital LLC, a Boston-based private-equity company. Gingrich asked the group to fix any inaccuracies or refrain from airing the ad.
The donation helped blunt Romney’s financial advantage. Through Sept. 30, the most recent date for which Federal Election Commission reports are available, Romney had raised more than $32.2 million, compared with $2.9 million for Gingrich. Two weeks after the video’s release, Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary, taking 40 percent to Romney’s 28 percent.
Even after his South Carolina win, with Romney and his super-PAC, Restore Our Future, already airing $4 million in commercials for the Florida primary, Gingrich’s camp reached out to the Adelsons anew.
To counter Romney, Miriam Adelson, an Israeli-born physician, contributed an additional $5 million to the committee, according to a person close to the matter who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Winning Our Future yesterday said it had invested in $6 million of commercials in the Sunshine State.
“Our motivation for helping Newt is simple and should not be mistaken for anything other than the fact that we hold our friendship with him very dear and are doing what we can as private citizens to support his candidacy,” the Adelsons said in a statement.
‘Friendship and Loyalty’
“Our means of support might be more than others are able to offer, but like most Americans, words such as friendship and loyalty still mean something to us,” they said.
A Gingrich campaign spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said that while the top donors to the PAC supporting the former speaker’s candidacy were made public, contributors to the pro-Romney political committee have remained secret. PACs next will have to report their donors on Jan. 31.
The money has been “very helpful” in giving Gingrich’s campaign the momentum it’s seeing now, according to Sig Rogich, a Las Vegas-based Republican political consultant. Gingrich leads in some Florida primary polls.
“I think it has the potential to make a significant difference in the campaign,” Rogich said.
A Romney spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, declined to comment in an e-mail.
Arizona Senator John McCain, a Romney backer who’s long advocated for stricter campaign finance rules, pointed to Adelson’s donations as an example of what he sees as out-of-control political spending.
“You have one family throwing in $10 million into a primary race,” McCain told reporters on a conference call today. “I don’t think that’s what our founding fathers had in mind.”
Adelson, whose worth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $21.5 billion in September, is the eighth-richest American, behind investor George Soros, at $22 billion, and ahead of Jim Walton, the son of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton, at $21.1 billion.
In the 2010 election cycle, Adelson ranked seventh in the U.S. among campaign contributors, giving $224,800, almost all of it to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.
Adelson donated $1 million in 2006 to help start American Solutions for Winning the Future, a political group founded by Gingrich that helped the former speaker travel to lay the groundwork for his presidential bid, Internal Revenue Service records show. The group closed last year after Gingrich left to run for president. Between its founding and collapse, Adelson gave $7.7 million to the group.
Support for Israel
Far more of the Adelsons’ money has gone to causes supporting Israel. The couple contributed more than $100 million since 2007 to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which offers free, 10-day educational trips to Israel for young people, according to Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the group. They are longstanding benefactors of Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Gingrich drew fire in December when he said in an interview on The Jewish Channel, a cable network, that while Jews had a right to their own country, “we’ve had an invented Palestinian people.”
Hammond, his press secretary, later said that the candidate backs “a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.”
The Adelsons first recall meeting Gingrich in the Capitol Rotunda after a 1995 Congressional vote over moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, according to a person with knowledge of the relationship. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss the family publicly and declined to be named.
Miriam Adelson, in particular, admires Gingrich because of her view that he speaks his mind and fights for what he believes in, according to the person.
Sheldon Adelson’s views of Israel have been shaped in part by his wife, who served in the Israeli military and runs an addiction clinic in Tel Aviv, in addition to her Las Vegas office. The couple keeps a home in Israel as well as residences in Las Vegas, the south of France, and Malibu, California.
Strong support for a cause is characteristic of Adelson, who is known for his feisty independence whether battling contractors over the cost of his casinos, county officials over tourism taxes or labor unions about their representation in his hotels, according to William Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“He’s been in perpetual fights with everybody,” Thompson said in a telephone interview. “He uses his financial power. He’s unafraid to go out on his own.”
Adelson’s two Las Vegas casinos, the Venetian and the Palazzo, are the only ones on the Strip that don’t use union labor, according to D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Workers Union Local 226.
“He has fought us tooth and nail and probably will until the day he dies,” Taylor said in a telephone interview. “Newt’s agenda is very much against workers and unions. I’m not surprised they hooked up.”
Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp., the world’s biggest casino operator by market value, is being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department, which have sought documents related to compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act at its unit in China’s Macau, company filings show. The law prohibits companies that operate in the U.S. from bribing foreign officials.
The company is cooperating with investigators and Adelson has repeatedly said he’s sure it will be cleared of wrongdoing.
Adelson has said he sees his life as that of an outsider battling the establishment.
“My m.o. has been to change the status quo,” he said in a November 2010 interview with Bloomberg News. “When I started off in business, I started off behind the starting line. I came from the wrong side of the tracks. I had to do things differently.”
The son of a cab driver from Boston’s working-class Dorchester section, Adelson hawked the Boston Globe on street corners and built a business selling packages of shaving cream and shampoo to hotels. He later founded Comdex, a Las Vegas technology trade show that he sold to Japanese software distributor Softbank Corp. for $862 million in 1995.
Segueing into casinos, Adelson built the Venetian in Las Vegas, a property catering to convention attendees and tourists, starting a trend in Sin City of hotel-adjacent meeting space and business-friendly amenities.
“He’s one of the pioneers of this town,” Rogich said. “He’s done as much for anyone in the history of the city, including Steve Wynn.”
Like Wynn, whose Wynn Resorts Ltd. is the second-largest U.S. casino operator by market value, Adelson’s biggest score came from developing casinos in Macau, the former Portuguese territory turned over to China. Gambling revenue there overtook the Las Vegas Strip in 2006.
After financial markets collapsed in 2008 when he still had properties under construction in Macau, Singapore and Las Vegas, Adelson had to chip in $1 billion of his family’s money to keep Las Vegas Sands afloat. The shares have appreciated about 800 percent since January 2009.
“So what am I, the comeback kid?” Adelson said in 2010. “I’ll make you a compromise: the comeback old fogy.”