Billionaire Sheldon Adelson Assesses the 2016 Field

Shane Goldmacher
National Journal

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Republican whose super PAC spending upended the 2012 GOP presidential primary, has a list of early contenders in 2016—and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky isn’t on it.

Although he said “it’s far too early” to speculate about the next presidential field, Adelson rattled off the names of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 vice presidential nominee; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as presumed candidates.

“I didn’t even know Ted Cruz was potentially a candidate until somebody pointed it out to me the other day,” Adelson said of the freshman senator from Texas.

Adelson’s early 2016 assessment came in an extensive interview with National Journal earlier this week in which he also said he is considering an expanded involvement in Senate Republican primaries after watching flawed GOP nominees fritter away winnable seats in the last two cycles.

“We are going to be involved in more primary races than we were before,” he said.

Adelson’s words carry the weight of his wallet. The casino magnate—he is the chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp.—is one of the biggest donors in Republican politics, having spent with his wife nearly $100 million on the 2012 elections. Forbes estimates Adelson is the 15th-richest person in the world, worth $26.5 billion.

It’s not entirely surprising that Adelson would leave Paul’s name off his early list for 2016. Paul is a leading libertarian voice in the GOP who argues for the weaning away of foreign aid, including eventually to Israel, and has been at the forefront of opposition to a Syria intervention.

Adelson is a pro-Israel hawk who was named an honorary citizen of Jerusalem earlier this year and is backing President Obama’s proposed strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its suspected use of chemical weapons. Still, Adelson said the Syria situation is not a litmus test for 2016. “I don’t think it makes a hill-of-beans difference,” he said. “It’s not a make-or-break issue for me. Period.” All the members of Congress seen as most likely 2016 aspirants—Cruz, Paul, Rubio, and Ryan—have come out in opposition to Obama striking Syria.

Adelson had only kind words for most of the potential contenders. “Everybody’s impressed me,” he said. “Rubio is a very impressive guy. I’ve talked to him privately many times, and he’s extremely knowledgeable. I’ve discussed a lot of esoteric issues with him, and he’s right up there.”

“The same thing, I had lunch with Chris Christie one day, he and his wife, Mary Pat, and he’s a very impressive guy,” Adelson continued. “The same thing with Ryan—everybody’s impressive.”

Top Republicans make efforts to stay in Adelson’s good graces—and for good reason. Last year, he handed out $30 million to a super PAC backing Mitt Romney; $23 million to American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-affiliated super PAC; and $5 million apiece to the super PACs formed by allies of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

All that money is why, only four days after Romney tapped Ryan as his vice presidential pick last year, Ryan flew out to Las Vegas for a gathering hosted by Adelson at the Venetian hotel.

This August, Adelson hosted a fundraiser for Christie at the Palazzo. The event came two years after Christie, whose state is home to Atlantic City, the No. 2 gambling mecca in the country, disparaged people who go to Las Vegas in the summer. “You’d have to be stupid to do that,” he said then. An Adelson-hosted event was enough to change his mind.

Beyond his donations, Adelson has had some unwelcome recent interactions with the federal government. His company agreed to pay $47 million last month to settle a money-laundering probe. And a second federal investigation into the possible bribing of foreign officials with business in China is ongoing.

With the 2016 election still more than three years away, Adelson said he’s looking for leadership qualities in potential contenders. “When somebody is a believer in their own convictions, that’s the kind of guy that I’m for,” he said, citing President Reagan’s famed standoff with air-traffic controllers. “When Reagan dumped the flight controllers, there was no question he wasn’t going to take them back.”

“So it isn’t just, ‘I can debate good, I’m very articulate, I can sell my point of view,’ ” Adelson said. He’s looking for a leader who won’t “swing with the wind of the polls.”

In Senate races, the Nevada Republican said he wants to push for more-electable nominees, a big point of contention between the party establishment and tea-party activists.

“Look what happened here in Nevada. [In 2010,] Sharron Angle came in in the primary race against Sue Lowden, who was a shoo-in for U.S. senator,” he said. “We were not involved in that race in the manner that we should have. But listen, she was unelectable. [Todd] Akin in … Missouri was unelectable. [Richard] Mourdock was unelectable in Indiana.”

Angle, Akin, and Mourdock were all Republican Senate nominees who bested GOP establishment candidates in the primary, only to lose to a Democrat in the general election.

“I think we’ve got to take, in our political calculations—we’ve got to take a closer look at who is more electable, rather than listen to the normal pitches of, ‘Geez, I’m just 3 points away; if only I had a billion dollars I could close that gap,’ ” Adelson said.

He wouldn’t detail his plans for the 2014 primaries. “I tell you the truth, I don’t know. It’s just much too early,” he said, adding he hadn’t “given it any thought,” though clearly he had.

Adelson, who turned 80 earlier this year, did have one brief Rick Perry “oops” moment in the 30-minute interview. In explaining his support for Obama in enforcing a “red line” in Syria, Adelson said, “There are three things in Chinese lore that can’t be retracted. One is the spoken word, two is the spent arrow, and three—I’m at the age that I’ve forgot,” he said.

Not that he sounded like a man intending to slow down. “Eighty is the new 60,” he said, “so I celebrated my 60th when I was 60 and I celebrated my 60th again when I’m 80.”