This weekend a crop of potential blue-chip GOP presidential candidates will assemble in Las Vegas competing for the attention, favor, and money of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is worth $38 billion. The marquee names in attendance: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and current governors Chris Christie (New Jersey), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), and John Kasich (Ohio). Adelson really wants to elect a Republican president in 2016. And the fact that he and his wife dropped almost $93 million in the 2012 cycle is an indication of how much they’re willing to spend in pursuit of that goal.
What’s happening this weekend is essentially a beauty pageant. At some point soon, Adelson is going to pick a Miss Republican, and instead of a crown, the lucky winner will get a boatload of money, probably in the form of a candidate-specific Super PAC like the one he funded for his pal Newt Gingrich in 2012. I explain all this in video format here, standing outside Adelson’s Venetian hotel in Las Vegas:
A couple of things are important to know about the “Adelson Primary,” as it’s being called:
1. He wants to back an electable, mainstream Republican candidate. This is an implicit acknowledgement that he erred in backing a fringe figure in Gingrich last time around. Gingrich was the one who first launched the devastating “vulture capitalist” attacks on Romney (although the phrase is Rick Perry’s) that Obama later picked up. So this time, instead of personal loyalty, Adelson is focusing on electability. As notable as Adelson’s Vegas roster this weekend is the list of marquee names who are not there: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee.
2. He really wants to stop Internet gambling. Adelson considers it a threat to his casino business. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham introduced legislation this week—drafted with Adelson’s lobbyist, according to the New York Times—that would shut down Internet gambling. Adelson also funds a Washington pressure group, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, that has focused on enlisting the support of social conservatives. As Graham told to the Times, explaining why he had become the senate sherpa for Adelson’s interests: “I would say that Sheldon has aligned himself with most Baptists in South Carolina.”
Here is Adelson’s presidential dilemma: The Venn diagram of “Republicans who oppose online gambling” doesn’t much overlap with “Republicans who are electable.” The first group comprises mainly social conservatives, such as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and possibly Rick Perry, who would oppose gambling on moral grounds. None are remotely top-tier candidates who would widen the Republican Party’s electoral appeal. The candidates who conceivably could do that—Christie, Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul—tend to be positioning themselves as forward-thinking, innovation-minded, tech-friendly Republicans who can appeal to a more modern and moderate segment of the electorate than the old GOP. In the past two weeks, Rubio has given speeches at Uber and Google (GOOG) in Washington, D.C. Christie has already legalized Internet gambling in New Jersey. A outright ban seems an unlikely position for them to suddenly adopt, even if a lot of money is on the line.
Maybe I’m wrong. I’m sure $100 million can be very persuasive. If not, Adelson may have to choose between his business and his desire for a Republican president.