How US casino magnate Sheldon Adelson's death could affect the GOP's future

Sheldon Adelson and his wife have donated more than a half-billion dollars to GOP campaigns and super PACs since 2010. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The death of Sheldon G. Adelson, the casino magnate who used his vast fortune to tip the balance of power in Washington over the last decade by helping Republicans take control of the House, the Senate and eventually the White House, adds another element of uncertainty for the party as it faces a bitter reckoning over President Donald Trump's legacy.

Already, the fallout over the deadly siege on the Capitol by Trump supporters last week has hit the Republican Party financially, with several blue chip corporations like Marriott and Blue Cross Blue Shield announcing that they would suspend donations to members of Congress who supported Mr Trump's efforts to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

And while it seems likely that Mr Adelson's wife, Dr Miriam Adelson, will continue with some of their family's political giving, his death on Monday (Jan 11) night at the age of 87 leaves Republicans without a benefactor whose donations were so crucial to the party's success that only a small number of billionaires, like Mr Charles Koch, rivalled his influence.

All told, Mr Adelson and his wife have donated more than a half-billion dollars to GOP campaigns and super PACs since 2010, according to federal records.

His absence could further complicate Republican efforts in 2022 to regain power in Congress, where they will be in the minority in both chambers once the results of the Georgia Senate run-off are formally certified later this month and Mr Biden is inaugurated.

"The corporate giving backlash, along with the tragic passing of Sheldon Adelson, leaves a real void in the fund-raising plans for the 2022 cycle," said Mr Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist who has worked with the Adelsons and other major GOP financiers.

Part of the concern for Republicans, Mr Reed added, is that the Adelsons have been so singular a force in the party that there is no replacement. "A next generation of Sheldon-level giving does not readily exist," he said.

The 2020 cycle was the biggest yet for the Adelsons. Together they gave about US$217 million (S$288 million), with the largest portion, US$90 million, going to a super PAC that supported Mr Trump's re-election. They donated another US$70 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, which was devoted to maintaining Republican control of the Senate, and US$50 million to the main House Republican super PAC.

As word of Mr Adelson's death spread on Tuesday, there was an outpouring of sympathy from Republicans and conservative leaders across the country and in Israel, where the Adelsons were instrumental in bolstering the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr Trump called Mr Adelson a "great man".

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri described Mr Adelson as "a force of nature". Senator Rick Scott of Florida said the businessman would "forever be remembered as a leader who dedicated his life to the betterment of his country, the nation of Israel and the world".

While Mr Adelson's political giving was directed at Republican candidates, one prominent Democrat, former senator Harry Reid of Nevada, praised his hand in transforming Las Vegas "into the iconic destination it is today". Dr Adelson, who was born in Israel and was the driving force behind the family's involvement in conservative Israeli politics, is expected to remain active as the publisher of free daily newspaper Israel Hayom.

Ms Susie Gelman, a liberal Jewish philanthropist who heads the board of the Israel Policy Forum and worked with the Adelsons for years in support of Birthright Israel, said she did not expect that Mr Adelson's death would result in any great changes in any of the Adelsons' spheres of influence in Israel.

"My sense is that they were very much a team," she said. "They seemed very much aligned in their political views."

In Israel, people active in causes the Adelsons have aided said that Dr Adelson was even more fervid in her views than her husband.

The Adelsons were arguably the most instrumental backers of Mr Netanyahu through their establishment and operation of Israel Hayom, which they set up in 2007. Known widely as "Bibiton" - a portmanteau of Mr Netanyahu's nickname, Bibi, and the Hebrew for newspaper, "iton" - the newspaper gave such favourable coverage to Mr Netanyahu that it was as if he were editing it himself.

In the United States, the couple was a key source of support for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which remained a close ally of Mr Trump throughout the course of his turbulent presidency. The Adelsons were among those who helped persuade Mr Trump to lean into a hard-line pro-Israel stance, which led to his decision in 2017 to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem from - a move that incensed Palestinians and led to unrest across the Middle East after it was announced.

The Adelsons gave about US$90 million to a super PAC that supported Trump's re-election last year. PHOTO: AFP

The couple were seated in the front row for the ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating the move in May 2018. That day, Dr Adelson described Mr Trump as "the Truman of our time" in an extraordinary front-page editorial in The Las Vegas Review-Journal, which she and her husband purchased in 2016 and have used to promote their domestic and foreign policy interests.

American conservatives were left wondering what his absence would mean for the relationship between Israel and the United States going forward, as Mr Biden is expected to adopt a more moderating approach.

"We have been unabashedly staunch allies of Israel," said Mr Bradley A. Blakeman, a Republican consultant who served in the George W. Bush administration.

"My fear is that we will go back to playing both sides against the middle."

Mr Adelson's huge spending changed the contours of the battles for the Senate and House in recent years, as well as past Republican presidential nominating contests. In 2012, he funded a super PAC supporting Mr Newt Gingrich that bloodied the eventual nominee, Mr Mitt Romney, and gave Mr Gingrich's often quixotic campaign a longer shelf life than many expected it to have.

But in the general election, the Adelsons invested millions more in another super PAC that aimed to help Mr Romney defeat Mr Barack Obama.

For years, top Republicans sought Mr Adelson's approval and cash. In the 2016 presidential primary, Mr Trump attacked his fellow Republicans for pursuing Mr Adelson, in particular Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who he said would be the casino magnate's "perfect little puppet".

But the Adelsons' relationship with Mr Trump evolved over time. Once Mr Trump became the apparent Republican nominee and the party started to unify around his renegade candidacy, Mr Adelson agreed to back him and offered him some advice by urging him to express more humility as a candidate.

After Mr Trump's election in 2016, Dr Adelson wept tears of joy over his promises to support Israel. At a meeting in January 2017 at Trump Tower in which Mr Trump promised he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, she exclaimed, "I can't believe it!" and hugged the President-elect, according to one person who witnessed the exchange.

In November 2018, Mr Trump bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Dr Adelson. The Adelsons had just spent more than US$120 million helping Republicans in the mid-terms.

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