Tonight, the leading Republican presidential contenders will descend upon Las Vegas to participate in this year’s final GOP debate. And in a perfect metaphor for the rising influence of billionaire mega-donors, the debate is being held at The Venetian, the palatial casino owned by notorious Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson spent close to $100 million in the 2012 election, but in this cycle both his chosen candidate and his expenditures remain something of a mystery. In an election increasingly dominated by undisclosed “dark” money, Adelson enjoys ample opportunity to funnel large sums into politically active tax-exempt groups that operate outside the disclosure laws.
Though Adelson has held off making any public endorsement, there’s been considerable speculation about his support for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. According to Politico, Adelson was said to be on the verge of throwing his weight behind Rubio last spring. Talk of a Rubio surfaced again at the end of October. Rubio reportedly calls Adelson several times a month to discuss his campaign and has had several in-person meetings with him at his Las Vegas office.
Soon after first meeting with him in the summer, Rubio reciprocated support, coming out in support of legislation that would ban online gambling, a major Adelson priority. However, despite Adelson’s pledge to “spend whatever it takes” to kill online gambling, the bill has little chance of passing in either the Senate or the House.
As for Adelson’s spending, that, too remains a question mark. In 2012, most of the $98 million he spent was fully disclosed in the form of contributions to PACs and super PACs. Adelson’s expenditures included $20 million to prop up Newt Gingrich’s flagging primary campaign before supporting Mitt Romney to the tune of $30 million.
But since that election, Adelson’s spending has become less transparent. GOP insiders have said that he’s given more and more to prominent dark-money groups rather than to super PACs that must disclose donors. In 2014, his only major public contribution was $5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund.
The stakes are enormous for White House hopefuls and many Republican contenders have made personal pilgrimages to meet with him in Las Vegas, dubbed the “Adelson Primary.” And his policy positions have inspired a game of one-upmanship between the candidates.
He has a notably hardline stance on Israel, rejecting a two-state solution, supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and calling for a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran. At a presidential forum hosted in early December by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an organization Adelson founded, most of the 14 the GOP candidates present, including Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump denounced Obama’s Iran deal.
“Israel stands on the front lines of our civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam,” declared Rubio at the event.
But Adelson voiced concern after the 2012 election that he was being cast as a political villain, and stated that he would give more to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations that aren’t required to disclose donors.
Such so-called dark money groups are already dominating the 2016 elections, and campaign-finance reform advocates are sounding the alarm that many are promoting single candidates, not issues. Most notably a nonprofit group called Conservative Solutions Project that is affiliated with a Rubio super PAC has come under close scrutiny in recent weeks for ads that blatantly support Rubio.
Adelson may well have already contributed to one of these dark money groups, but there is no way to tally that spending. “If he decides that he doesn’t want his name disclosed, the last few election cycles have shown that is very easy to do if you pay the right lawyers,” says Robert Maguire, a political money investigator for the Center for Responsible Politics. “There’s no way to track this unless someone makes a big mistake.”
Adelson was criticized in 2012 for attacking Romney in early primary states and subsidizing Gingrich’s long-shot campaign, which insiders say hurt Romney’s candidacy in the long run. This time, he appears determined to fend off such attacks.
“He's being very careful this time, very strategic,” Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston told the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s also worth noting that in the last presidential race, Adelson didn’t unleash his first significant super PAC contributions until January of 2012, when he gave $5 million to Gingrich’s Winning Our Future super PAC, according to Center for Responsive Politics.
As Adelson treads lightly in the primary this time around, tonight’s debate could be the deciding factor for a public endorsement, or maybe a more private endorsement in the dark money alleys of our new political landscape. The question, then, would be: Will Adelson’s millions—public or private—have more impact than they did in 2012?