There are Republican megadonors, and then there was Sheldon Adelson.
The casino magnate, who died Monday at 87, and his wife Miriam together accounted for an enormous share of GOP political spending over the last decade, making him a Republican kingmaker. Even in a political world now over-stuffed with million-dollar donors, their pull was clear from the pilgrimages presidential candidates made to his Venetian resort in Las Vegas, meeting in his office just off the casino floor. Senior Republican operatives at GOP outside groups strategized around their nine-figure checks to power their campaigns for House and Senate majorities.
The Adelsons made $218 million in federal donations in 2019 and 2020 — over three times more than the next-biggest GOP donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They accounted for more than one-quarter of all Republican outside spending on President Donald Trump’s behalf in this election: $90 million out of $353 million in total, per CRP.
And over the last five years, the Adelsons gave $280 million to House and Senate Republicans’ main super PACs, supplying more than one-third of the funding for Congressional Leadership Fund and nearly one-quarter of Senate Leadership Fund’s total during that time, according to a POLITICO review of FEC data. Their total federal giving over the last decade topped a half-billion dollars.
“Sheldon Adelson was the GOP megadonor of GOP megadonors,” said Ken Spain, a former spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “He was a deciding factor for dozens, if not hundreds, of races over the last decade. In a world where Democrats can rely on small-dollar donations that can add up to tens of millions of dollars, the loss of a major donor of Adelson’s stature is going to be felt.”
Several senior Republicans predicted that Miriam would continue the family’s substantial giving to the GOP. “But it remains to be seen whether or not it will continue at the astronomical level that Republicans are now accustomed to,” Spain said.
Miriam, 75, was intimately involved in her husband’s political giving, and the pair would typically cut identical-sized checks at the same time when they donated to GOP groups. For many candidates and party organizations, winning the Adelsons’ support was seen as necessary to their survival.
His financial seal of approval — lent to dozens of Republican groups over his decades as a contributor — signaled a group’s credibility to rest of the donor class. One senior Republican involved in outside spending said that Adelson was a “North Star” for donors, who “would always look to see if he was involved in a project as a measure of its value or importance to the party.”
A few Republicans, though, warned that Adelson had become “a crutch” for the party, which has become reliant on megadonors to power its political machinery. In contrast, Democrats built up a more muscular digital fundraising machine, drafting off anti-Trump energy to raise hundreds of millions of dollars that often out-matched Republican megadonors’ efforts.
In mid-2020, for example, the Adelsons upped their contribution to the Senate Leadership Fund, the Senate GOP’s main super PAC, to $50 million for the year. But the top nine Democratic Senate candidates combined to raise even more than that online in August. (The Adelsons later upped their SLF contributions to $70 million for the 2020 election.)
A chorus of Republican officials mourned Adelson’s death on Tuesday. In statements, Congressional Leadership Fund Chairman Norm Coleman called Adelson “a giant” and a “visionary in every arena,” and Senate Leadership Fund CEO Steven Law cast Adelson as the “living, breathing testament to the power of the American dream,” who was “far more interested in doing good than in seeking recognition for it.”
Adelson, the son of a cabdriver, rose through the hospitality and gambling world, primarily in Nevada, to build one of the world’s largest casino and resort hotel empires. In 2020, Bloomberg valued Adelson’s wealth at $33.4 billion. He started donating to Republican causes in the 1990s, but his political power ballooned after the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which loosened limits on outside political spending.
During the 2008 election, Adelson was a major giver behind Freedom’s Watch, an organization that backed Republican congressional candidates. During the 2012 presidential race, he and his wife gave more than $20 million to a super PAC that was supportive of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich before pivoting to give $30 million to the super PAC backing Mitt Romney after he secured the nomination.
In 2016, the Adelsons doled out tens of millions of dollars to a pro-Trump super PAC. The couple was rewarded for their support with seats at the dais for Trump’s inauguration, and Trump later awarded Miriam, a physician, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
During the 2020 election, Trump advisers regarded Adelson’s largesse as critical to the president’s reelection prospects. But as the race entered its final stretch, there was a problem: Trump had antagonized Adelson during a heated summertime phone call, causing the mogul to delay his planned giving to the president. The Adelsons would finally pull the trigger around Labor Day, donating $90 million to a newly formed super PAC, Preserve America, that attacked Democrat Joe Biden.
Unlike many major donors motivated by a diverse array of interests, Adelson was largely driven by a single concern: Israel. The 87-year-old mogul helped to fund organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America. He was an outspoken supporter of Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and a major backer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party.
The RJC each year held its annual conference at the Adelson’s Venetian resort, a gathering that would regularly draw party heavyweights ranging from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to Vice President Mike Pence.
“His advocacy for the state of Israel and Jewish causes was without equal and made a difference in countless lives both at home and abroad,” former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement released on Tuesday.
Sheldon Adelson’s super PAC spending spree shaped GOP politics The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Politico.