What Did Sheldon Adelson Get for His $200 Million?
Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, has spent more than $200 million in the past few years championing GOP candidates and conservative causes. With Republicans controlling Congress and a former casino owner in the White House, Adelson, the founder of Las Vegas Sands Corp., should be getting everything he wants. But things aren’t working out that way.
The son of a cab driver, Adelson, who’s worth $33 billion, campaigned for an NFL stadium in his hometown, Las Vegas, only to be squeezed out of the deal by the owners of the Oakland Raiders in January. He spent $12 million fighting marijuana legalization in the past year but lost in three of the four states where he campaigned, including Nevada.
One of his most high-profile efforts, to ban online gambling nationally, also faces hurdles. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman from Utah who sponsored Adelson-endorsed legislation to outlaw internet betting in 2014 and 2015, has left politics. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who’s said he’s sympathetic to Adelson’s position, recused himself from the issue after hiring an Adelson lobbyist as his attorney in connection with the Russia probes in June. Online gambling hasn’t expanded since Adelson started fighting it four years ago, but several states are considering legalizing it, including Pennsylvania. Legislators in the statehouse there have approved early versions of an online-betting bill, yet it’s unclear whether it will be part of a final budget.
Even President Trump seems to have disappointed him, reversing course on a pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a big cause for the staunchly pro-Israel Adelson. “He’s spent a lot of money that has not born a big return on investment,” says Jon Ralston, a longtime political commentator and editor of the Nevada Independent website. “He’s much smarter about casinos than he is about campaigns.”
Adelson’s contributions have secured him a direct line to Republican officials, including Trump. He dined at the White House in February, a day before he and other business leaders met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Adelson is among those hoping to build a resort in Japan, where casinos were recently legalized. A spokesman says Adelson is “very happy with Trump in the White House.”
Adelson, 83, runs a fairly lean political operation. He and his wife, Miriam, an Israeli native, make all the decisions about whom or what to back, with some advice from Andy Abboud, Sands’ longtime head of government relations. The Adelsons choose causes that are close to their hearts. The billionaire has sought legislation to outlaw online gambling, he’s said, because his father was a compulsive gambler and it’s easier to spot compulsive behavior—and intervene—in a casino than it is online. The Adelsons have fought marijuana legalization in part because Miriam, a physician who runs drug addiction clinics in Las Vegas and Tel Aviv, believes it will exacerbate America’s substance abuse problem.
Politicians are starting to pay a price for their ties with Adelson. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under investigation at home for trying to negotiate better coverage from a Tel Aviv newspaper in exchange for reducing the circulation of a rival publication owned by the Adelson family. Netanyahu, who maintains he did nothing improper, allegedly said he’d be able to smooth things over with Adelson. Although he’s not a target of the investigation, Adelson has been interviewed twice in the past three months by investigators in Israel. According to local news reports, he testified that he and his wife knew nothing about the deal and that they’re upset about it.
In Nevada, Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a likely Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2018 who counts Adelson as one of his biggest donors, had to testify before legislators in May, answering questions about why he tried to persuade state casino regulators to intervene in a lawsuit between Adelson and a former Sands executive, Steven Jacobs. The incident could turn voters against Laxalt in a crucial swing state where Republicans lost both houses last year.
Adelson, who earns about $1.2 billion a year in dividends from his company, shows no signs of being discouraged by these setbacks. “Sheldon is Sheldon,” says Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican public-relations consultant in Las Vegas who once worked for him. “I don’t think a guy who’s worth $33 billion is having a bad day.” —With Bill Allison and Michael Arnold