Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who came to typify the megadonors fueling conservative politics in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010, has died at 87 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was the largest single donor to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and to the 45th president’s inauguration, and was also one of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most important and reliable supporters, partly via newspapers Adelson owned in the adopted country he visited often.
Adelson grew up the son of a cab driver and a small knitting-shop owner in Depression-era Boston, and at an early age showed entrepreneurial skills as a newspaper street vendor. After a variety of business ventures, Adelson struck gold in the budding computer industry, and established a home base in Las Vegas, as NPR observed:
[E]arly in the personal computer era, he bought an influential computer trade show called Comdex and held it in Las Vegas.
Comdex took off, so Adelson bought the legendary Sands Hotel and Casino and built a million-square-foot convention center behind it. It was the start of a new Las Vegas, a place that catered to big conventions all week long — not just the weekend crowd that came in for gambling and the shows.
“I think if you had to single out one individual who brought that kind of component to the city, it would be Sheldon Adelson,” said Sig Rogich, a longtime Las Vegas communications consultant. “He was a transformational figure in Las Vegas history.”
He eventually built huge hotel complexes in Macau and Hong Kong as well as Las Vegas, and despite huge losses during the financial collapse of 2008, soon resumed his position as one of the wealthiest people in the world, with a net worth of somewhere between $35-to-40 billion upon his death. In both philanthropy and political kingmaking, he partnered with his second wife, Miriam, an Israeli-born physician, whom Trump honored with a presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019.
Perhaps because he was more open about it than counterparts like the Koch Brothers, Adelson has been the 21st century’s most generous and conspicuous funder of Republican campaigns and causes, as the New York Times reports:
With cornucopias of cash, Mr. Adelson had for years showered king’s ransoms on Republican Party stalwarts. He was a major supporter of President George W. Bush in 2004 and gave $92.7 million to campaigns and super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and others in 2012. He told Forbes that he was willing to spend $100 million to defeat President Barack Obama.
He personally kept Gingrich in the 2012 presidential nominating contest with his checkbook, but was always willing to invest heavily in winners, as he did with Romney in 2012 and Trump (not his original favorite) in 2016.
Adelson’s increasing focus on Israel in recent years was exhibited in his ownership or dominant investment in multiple media outlets in that country, including the free daily Hebrew-language tabloid Israel Hayom (Israel Today). He achieved the summit of his political career when Trump, his last American protégé, moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, fulfilling one of Adelson’s abiding causes. Trump’s strong support for Netanyahu’s opposition to Palestinian statehood and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor also likely gratified his Las Vegas benefactor.
Adelson’s interest in newspapers wasn’t limited to Israel. In 2016, he bought the Las Vegas Journal-Review as he sought to shore up his power base in the city, which was threatened by a lawsuit alleging corruption in his Macau operations (the litigation was finally settled in 2019). In his supervision of all his businesses, he was regarded as dictatorial and hostile to unions, but certainly willing to invest in improvements he considered essential. As the Times noted in its obituary, Adelson created a vast fantasyland:
[H]e drew countless gamblers and vacationers to his archipelago of fantasy resorts with Venetian-themed canals, motorized gondolas, singing gondoliers and replicas of St. Mark’s Campanile and the Rialto Bridge, all to support acres of slot machines and roulette wheels, lavish floor shows and the biggest, gaudiest hotels anywhere on the planet.
The just-completed U.S. election cycle saw more billionaires pony up more political donations than ever, alongside an unprecedented sea of small-dollar donors in both parties. Both trends indicate that conspicuous kingmakers like Adelson may have become a thing of the past. His friend Bibi Netanyahu is struggling to survive a perpetual season of scandal. The onetime Boston newspaper hawker probably achieved the kind of multinational personal business and political success few will be able to emulate, particularly now that the supreme political hotelier Donald Trump is ending his presidency in disgrace.