Sheldon Adelson passed away yesterday. As I write this, tributes are already pouring in for the salesman turned electronics show visionary turned billionaire casino oligarch.
In light of recent events, we might as well examine Adelson’s role in influencing the politics and governance of two countries, and more specifically how he and others were ultimately overwhelmed by the machine that they played such huge roles in building.
How I became familiar with Sheldon Adelson
Since my early days as a noisy little blogger, I kept a close eye on Sheldon Adelson’s burgeoning political empire to complement his corporate empire. He had already made Las Vegas Sands a force to be reckoned with here in Nevada and in the Chinese-controlled gaming mecca of Macau. He had also already made a name for himself in Israeli politics and media with his launch of Israel Hayom, a right-wing newspaper that would become so central to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political livelihood that Netanyahu triggered a snap election in 2014 in order to stop legislation in the Knesset (Israel’s national parliament) that would have regulated Israel Hayom’s circulation.
But in the early 2010’s, Adelson had begun to do here in the U.S. what he was already doing in Israel. In 2012 Adelson nearly single-handedly revived Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, severely disrupted Mitt Romney’s path to the Republican nomination, and ultimately helped Romney secure the Republican nomination by way of smothering Rick Santorum’s late surge, and he did it all with multi-million-dollar “money bombs” into a pro-Gingrich Super PAC.
Closer to home, Adelson sought to reshape the Nevada Republican Party, even though the official Nevada Republican Party rejected his “guidance” and instead became a bastion for Ron Paul acolytes. Adelson ultimately did an end-run around them by funding “Team Nevada”. Then after “Team Nevada” became mired in its own controversy while failing to deliver the Silver State’s six electoral votes for Romney, Adelson bankrolled Engage Nevada, and that became much more of a hit when Nevada Republicans won big (by way of very tiny voter turnout) in 2014.
Even as Sheldon Adelson was succeeding, his success sowed the seeds of disaster.
Following Adelson’s stumbles in 2012, he regrouped in his efforts to reshape the Republican Party and the U.S. government more to his liking. In 2014, he summoned four of the eventual 2016 Republican presidential candidates to a GOP summit at his own Venetian Resort here in Southern Nevada to try to pick the next president. It initially backfired, as Donald Trump instead emerged as the Nevada Republican Caucus winner and the Republican presidential nominee. But like other “Republican Party establishment” figures, Adelson determined that if he couldn’t defeat Trump, he’d just join Team Trump and influence him from the inside.
In some respects, Adelson’s strategy paid off in spades. At the same private GOP summit at his Venetian Resort where he once auditioned Trump’s rivals just five years prior, Adelson basked in the glory of President Donald Trump delivering the belligerent foreign policy (especially when it comes to supporting Benjamin Netanyahu no matter what) and corporate laissez-faire domestic policies that Adelson preferred.
Yet even as Sheldon Adelson finally seemed to reach the pinnacle of political success, his extreme makeover of the GOP gradually became “too successful”. Adelson’s fortune helped elect Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) in 2014, yet Laxalt’s brazen attempt in 2017 to coerce the Chair of the Gaming Control Board into intervening in a lawsuit on behalf of Las Vegas Sands (Adelson’s company) simultaneously exposed Las Vegas Sands’ corruption scandals in Macau to a larger audience and began Laxalt’s own political undoing that culminated in losing the gubernatorial election to Steve Sisolak (D) in 2018.
Meanwhile Laxalt, Gingrich, and other Republicans who had benefited from Adelson’s campaign cash largesse decided that the best way to remain relevant in the Republican Party was to embrace the very extremist base whom Adelson once fought to sideline from the Nevada Republican Party. Even as Engage Nevada morphed into Secure Nevada’s Future, and as more of Adelson’s candidates and operatives rose in the Republican Party, instead of moving the GOP away from anti-democratic extremism, they provided cover for Trump, Laxalt, and their cohorts.
Let’s review Sheldon Adelson’s other attempts to make a bigger mark in this state.
Beyond just the Republican Party, Sheldon Adelson engaged in other projects to reshape Nevada’s future. In 2016, he and then Oakland Raiders principal owner Mark Davis announced to great fanfare that the Raiders would move to Las Vegas if the State of Nevada and Clark County were to just pony up (at least) $750 million for a new NFL stadium.
Adelson himself ultimately pulled out his own promised $650 million investment, but not before then Governor Brian Sandoval (R) and the Nevada Legislature rushed to approve upwards of $1 billion worth of tax subsidies and other public tax dollars to make what we now call Allegiant Stadium a reality. In 2016, stadium backers promised that this new stadium would generate plenty of return on investment thanks to ticket sales for Raiders games and other major events. But now that COVID-19 rages across Nevada and the U.S., the Las Vegas Raiders must play in an otherwise empty stadium, and Clark County is left with the bills to pay.
Just before Adelson and Davis went public with their plans for a new NFL stadium, Adelson privately followed through in buying another newspaper: the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Initially, other prominent Nevadans hoped that Adelson’s takeover of the R-J would boost the paper’s and the state’s reputations with new investments in the newsroom.
Though Adelson did invest more in the R-J’s news operations, he ultimately made it into more of a U.S. version of Israel Hayom with the R-J’s often hardcore devotion to Donald Trump, an extensive cover-up of the paper’s #MeToo scandals, and a back-and-forth lawsuit war against the Las Vegas Sun that only serves to remind Nevadans that both papers have lost whatever was left of their journalistic reputations.
And finally, some notes on who and what Sheldon Adelson has left behind
According to a statement from Las Vegas Sands, Sheldon Adelson died yesterday “from complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” Despite Adelson’s consistent support for the Republican Party, top Nevada Democrats like former U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D), current U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Jacky Rosen (D), and Governor Steve Sisolak all expressed their condolences.
Meanwhile in the final days of Adelson’s life, the $217 million he invested in the Republican Party’s efforts to hang onto power last year, including $90 million in Super PAC support for Trump, has resulted in Trump’s ongoing efforts to execute a coup d’etat to stay in power despite losing the election to President-elect Joe Biden. Not only did last Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol threaten the lives of outgoing Vice President Mike Pence and multiple Congressional Republicans, but other GOP mega-donors’ recent decisions to pull back their campaign donations subtly admitted that their bankrolling of the GOP ultimately provided financial support for the very extremists they claimed they could never support.
And in another ongoing challenge to Adelson’s legacy here in Nevada, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s failure to contain it have delivered an especially harsh blow to the Nevada business model that Adelson had seemingly perfected: that of conventions, trade shows, and other major events guaranteeing a steady stream of visitors to Las Vegas. Though his company has thus far managed to survive the COVID-19 shutdowns and travel restrictions, COVID-19 has called into question the sustainability of Adelson’s seemingly fail-proof convention-tourism business model.