GOP hopefuls betting on mega donor in Vegas

March 27, 2014 - 4:34 PM
The Sheldon Primary

FILE - This July 29, 2012 file photo shows American businessman Sheldon Adelson, is shown in Jerusalem, Israel. Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson is the main attraction for White House hopefuls as the Republican Jewish Coalition begins its annual “spring leadership meeting” on Thursday March 27, 2014 along the city’s storied strip, the site of Adelson’s Venetian resort hotel and casino. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Republican White House hopefuls gathering on the Las Vegas strip this weekend have not come to woo voters. Instead, the GOP stars are hoping to win over a key patron and, perhaps, his millions of dollars in campaign cash.

Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson is the main attraction for a list of elected officials that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. One of the world's richest men, the 80-year-old billionaire casino magnate is looking for a new favorite to help end his party's presidential losing streak.

"I'm going to see him tonight for sure," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday as he hurried out of a Las Vegas high school event. He was scheduled to speak to GOP donors — none more prolific than Adelson — in a private airport hangar a few hours later.

Most of the other prospective candidates were arriving Friday and Saturday, with a specific man on their minds: the billionaire who almost single-handedly bankrolled the group behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign in 2012. Adelson is in the market for a candidate in 2016.

"He's not on the sidelines," said Matt Brooks, who leads the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is hosting the four-day gathering at Adelson's Venetian resort hotel and casino. Of Adelson's role in GOP politics, Brooks added: "He's all in."

With an eye toward the 2016 presidential contest, prospective candidates and their aides have been aggressively courting such donors for months — but not like this. Dubbed, "the Sheldon primary," the conference features scotch tastings, private roundtable discussions, and golf and poker tournaments that bring together politicians and roughly 400 of the GOP's top money men, a powerful list Adelson leads.

Those familiar with his thinking say that Adelson is focused on finding a candidate who can win the White House in 2016. But even as he prioritizes viability, Adelson maintains a passion for an aggressive foreign policy, particularly in regards to Israel, and wants a candidate who shares his vision, confidants say. That's in contrast to a libertarian shift among tea party activists in particular that favor a more modest American role in foreign affairs.

Those close to Adelson spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak by name about the billionaire's thinking.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the face of the GOP's libertarian leanings on foreign policy, was invited to the Las Vegas meeting but declined, citing a family conflict.

Those who know Adelson well laugh at the notion that he sits on a golden throne as Republican officials audition for his support. He is expected to participate in the vast majority of the weekend's private activities along with hundreds of others. But his personal office on the edge of the Venetian's buzzing casino is familiar to top Republicans.

A set of nondescript double doors with golden moldings is guarded by a single security officer, set between a Monte Carlo slot machine and Hugo Boss retail store. Beyond the doors is an elevator that leads to Adelson's office suite, where he meets with Republican officials.

It's unclear if he'll have any one-on-one meetings with prospective candidates over the next few days.

Adelson, a Boston native, shifted his personal fortune from Gingrich's effort to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign once Gingrich left the race. Neither Gingrich nor Romney is at this year's gathering, which also features former Vice President Dick Cheney and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is also in Las Vegas this week.

The Republican conference, like the increasingly murky world of campaign finance, is shrouded in secrecy.

Adelson is not expected to speak publicly. Just one event is open to the media: a Saturday meeting with Walker, Christie and Kasich that's expected to feature a question-and-answer session. Attendees have been instructed to submit questions in advance, a break from tradition thought to help protect Christie from embarrassing questions about his recent struggles in New Jersey.

Adelson and his wife donated more than $90 million to candidates and political groups in 2012, although his total political donations may never be quantified publicly because various politically active groups that operate as nonprofit organizations don't have to report the sources of their funds.

Some Republican officials were eager to meet with Adelson, but they were also wary of speaking about him in public. A Walker spokesman offered only a vague explanation when asked why the Wisconsin governor was attending the Las Vegas meeting.

"The governor remains focused on 2014 and sharing his commonsense conservative message with like-minded leaders," Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said.

Adelson is considered one of the 10 richest people in the world. He is also the driving force behind the push to bring the Republican National Convention to Las Vegas in 2016.

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Wisconsin contributed to this report.