Sheldon and Newt

Could Sheldon Adelson’s luck be changing? Democrats certainly hope so.

Adelson, leader of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. that owns the Venetian and the Palazzo here and a big chunk of Macau, also has made a down payment on the White House. He gave $5 million to the Super PAC backing Newt Gingrich, and his wife Miriam has followed up with another $5 million.

The first payment enabled Gingrich to buy advertising that helped him win the South Carolina primary. The second payment may help him do the same in Florida, despite lacking the depth of organization that Mitt Romney has. All of which may prove the claims of critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, essentially, to oversimplify, giving corporations the right of free speech under the First Amendment—namely, that mega donors could change the political landscape and buy elections even more blatantly than they have in the past.

It’s just as interesting to consider Adelson’s politics and what they mean locally and nationally. Jon Ralston pointed out his history of fighting the establishment, starting in 1998, with Adelson funding candidates for the Clark County Commission in hopes of defanging Democrats and unions, especially the Culinary. That also was the year Shelley Berkley, a onetime Adelson executive, ran for the House for the first time. He did all he could for her opponent, but she won. It didn’t hurt her that Adelson so clearly opposed her. That gave local unions all the more incentive to support her.

Yet Berkley could have lost. None of the three County Commission candidates he supported in 1998 was likely to win; all ran in heavily Democratic districts. Adelson still supported them, and thereby established some precedents he often has followed. Unlike most of his fellow gaming executives, he has put loyalty and belief ahead of convenience. That may be a recommendation and it may not be. But it’s different.

Historically, gaming executives banked on winners and, if the loser was a serious candidate, sent over a little money to suggest no hard feelings. When it was personal, it still was business. Gaming executives put up big money in the 1960s to defeat gubernatorial candidates Hank Greenspun, the Las Vegas Sun publisher and a thorn in their side, and Grant Sawyer, who had been the biggest advocate of strict gaming control.

Nor did the earlier generation of casino owners necessarily want to be known for their political roles. After all, the Strip’s builders in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s came from illegal backgrounds and preferred to fly below the radar. Today, gaming is respectable enough to be legal in some form in 48 states, and while Adelson prefers attention of the sort that he controls or benefits from, he doesn’t mind the public being aware of his importance.

For Adelson, for better or worse, politics tends to be personal. If he dislikes the sure winner and loves the sure loser, he’ll back the sure loser. Adelson came to Gingrich’s rescue when he looked to be a sure loser, and he’ll stick with him unless Gingrich does something incredibly disagreeable to him (a significant number of Adelson’s business relationships have ended unpleasantly).  Considering Gingrich’s negatives, Democrats should hope that after backing so many losing candidates, Adelson has fallen in behind the next Republican presidential nominee. Adelson may not have wanted to give Obama a vacation during 2012, but he may yet manage that.

Adelson’s money may make Gingrich competitive in the Nevada caucuses and a threat to some of the vote that would have gone to Romney. That would mean, for the first time, Adelson really could single-handedly change the political dynamic in Nevada. That also would be true at the national level, and it would be at the hands of a casino owner. America may never forgive us.