Sheldon Adelson's real scandal (Hint: It's not about Newt Gingrich)

His presidential interests are merely a hobby. Where he really secures his bottom line is a whole different game

Published May 8, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Sheldon Adelson      (Reuters/Yuya Shino)
Sheldon Adelson (Reuters/Yuya Shino)

We tend to think of this new, post-Citizens United era of money in politics in terms of presidential elections: which eccentric billionaire is the super PAC "sugar daddy" to which loser candidate, and so forth. This is probably related to our broader tendency to think about everything in terms of presidential elections, because they're flashy and fun and oh my god who's it gonna be??

But billionaires throw their money into politics in all sorts of different ways, for different ends: Sometimes they're just doing it for fun, or to serve a pet interest. And sometimes they're doing it specifically to increase their bottom lines.

And nowhere is there a better example than Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who put tens of millions of dollars into the 2012 presidential contest -- first, comically, on Newt Gingrich, and later on eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

Why did Adelson provide so much super PAC aerial-support cash to Gingrich and Romney? And why does it look like he's already auditioning prospective nominees for 2016? In terms of his presidential interests, it seems like more of a hobby for him. He got to know Gingrich in the '90s and thought of him as a fun character. And when you have tens of billions of dollars to your name, it's not exactly difficult to give your ol' pal a measly $20 million or so during primary season, just for kicks. And then when Romney became the nominee, sure, he could have some cash too. He seems like a nice young man. On the presidential level, Adelson's pet issue is support of Israel, another country which he is in the process of purchasing. Still, it's hard to imagine that without Adelson in the mix, Republicans would be any less absolutist in their support for any and all things the right wing of Israel pursues.

Presidential politics are just a little game for people like Adelson, who enjoys getting his ass kissed. And the fact that presidential politicians have to kiss only one billionaire's ass these days to fund an entire campaign is subtly corrupt in its own way.

But when it comes to securing his bottom line? For this, Adelson has a whole other arrangement: lobbyists and smaller officeholders, who can work in concert to complete what their master desires.

In the case of Adelson, the policy goal is to keep online gambling illegal. Not because he gives a crap about the moral devastation that online gambling will wreak -- although he funds social conservative organizations that do! -- but because such business would cannibalize the massive profits he earns through his casinos.

The Washington Post has an excellent, in-depth look at the "state-level political network he has been quietly developing over the past few years" to keep online gambling illegal. Funneling donations and retaining various megalobbyists across the country, he has purchased various statehouses. Consider Florida, for example, where he has straight-up bought Gov. Rick Scott:

But less noted at the time was Adelson’s largesse in Florida, where he contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political committees supportive of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Adelson also gave $2 million to the Republican Governors Association and directed millions more to candidates for attorney general and other state-level offices across the country.

Many of the beneficiaries of Adelson’s state donations are now siding with the billionaire as he seeks to outlaw a practice he views as a threat to the economic health of the casino industry on which he built a personal fortune.

Scott, for instance, who is facing a competitive reelection campaign this year, sent a letter late last month to congressional leaders at Adelson’s request calling on lawmakers to prevent states from legalizing Internet betting, saying the practice lets gambling “invade the homes of every American family, and be piped in to our dens, living rooms, workplaces and even our kids bedrooms and dorm rooms.”

He's bought a few Democrats to help in Democrat-controlled California, too:

In recent months, he hired two well-connected California Democrats — former state House speaker Fabian Núñez and longtime party strategist Chris Lehane — as he combats legislation in Sacramento that would legalize Internet gambling. They join other prominent Democrats on Adelson’s payroll, including former senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and former Denver mayor Wellington Webb.

And it goes on and on and on. Do read!

The Adelson case is a good example of why it might be best to reorient the focus on money in politics. Because much of the "quid pro quo"-type damage to pad one's bottom line is being done through the purchase of state legislatures and lobbyists, not presidents. Happy Thursday!

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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