LAS VEGAS — Republicans made their annual sojourn to the lavish Venetian hotel here this weekend to kiss the ring of a benefactor they need more than ever: casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Confronting the potential loss of one or both chambers of Congress in the midterms, and struggling to raise money against an energized Democratic base, the party is desperate for Adelson’s millions. So the praise at the annual Republican Jewish Coalition conference he hosts overflowed, even though the billionaire, attending the funeral of a close friend in Israel, wasn’t on hand.
During a private appearance on Saturday morning, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is edging closer toward a run for Senate, led off his remarks by calling Adelson and his spouse, Miriam, “great friends” who he’d known for a long time. The Republican governor, himself tremendously wealthy, said he was saddened that the Adelsons couldn’t make it to this year’s event and that he was thinking of them.
The gushing underscored Adelson’s outsize influence in the party, which is expected only to grow this year as Republicans lean on him to help salvage their control of Congress. With energized Democratic candidates raising fistfuls of cash, party officials say they are depending on major givers like Adelson, a longtime bankroller of GOP causes, to close the gap.
The RJC conference has emerged as a must-stop for those eager to appeal to Adelson and his extended network of friends and fellow contributors. It's a group that, this year, included Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, who made an appearance Friday.
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Adelson, a major funder of the RJC, was absent this time, but his prominence was on display throughout the weekend.
Several of the billionaire’s aides, including top gatekeeper Andy Abboud, were seen darting from meeting to meeting. And as they milled throughout the resort’s casino floor, attendees gossiped about how much Adelson, whose net worth is said to top $38 billion, might give to his besieged party in 2018. Some said they hoped the billionaire would give earlier in the election year than he usually does and provide the party a much-needed cash infusion.
Adelson, a famously private figure, has given few hints about his plans for the midterms. Several people who’ve been in direct contact with his team said the 84-year-old billionaire was still considering his options for House and Senate races, but that they expected him to invest well into the millions. The Adelsons have done so before: During the 2016 election, the couple gave over $50 million to super PACs backing Republican congressional candidates.
Those close to the billionaire are well aware of the challenges the party faces. During a private appearance on Saturday, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, the RJC’s chairman, delivered a call to arms in which he warned that the party in power faces historic hurdles during midterm years, according to several attendees.
Adelson’s deliberations come at an anxious moment for the party. The latest batch of fundraising reports showed more than 40 House GOP incumbents being outraised by Democratic challengers. Senior Republicans are also deeply worried about their fundraising performance in key Senate races, including Missouri and Nevada, where GOP candidates are being heavily outpaced.
Republicans are hopeful that big donors like Adelson and the Koch brothers can help make up the difference. During a retreat in Indian Wells, California, late last month, the Koch network announced plans to spend up to $400 million on 2018 races.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who spent the weekend roaming the halls of the massive Venetian complex, said Adelson was particularly cognizant of the importance of protecting the endangered House GOP majority. But, Graham noted, Adelson was cautious in his political investments.
It was a lesson Adelson learned during the 2012 Republican presidential primary, people close to him believe. Adelson contributed over $20 million to a super PAC backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who petered out after an early surge.
"He's generous,” said Graham. “But he's smart — he doesn't throw away his money.”
House Republicans played a central role at this weekend’s conference, with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California delivering a speech on Saturday evening.
Several candidates in competitive races were also in attendance, including Utah Rep. Mia Love, who spent Friday afternoon hobnobbing with major donors at a poker tournament. After delivering an early morning vote to help end the government shutdown, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, boarded a plane to Las Vegas to make a Friday fundraiser on his behalf.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who’s been in touch with Adelson on an intermittent basis, had been slated to speak on Saturday afternoon but was unable to attend because of the vote.
As they hopscotched from meeting to meeting, some attendees remarked that the downfall of another Las Vegas casino mogul, Steve Wynn, had positioned Adelson as a donor of singular importance in the area.
Wynn stepped down as Republican National Committee finance chair last month following revelations that he’d been accused of sexually harassing employees at his company.
"The sidelining of Steve Wynn is a blow to Republican super PACs and candidates and it makes donors like Sheldon Adelson even more important," said Curt Anderson, a Republican strategist who accompanied Scott to the Venetian.
Republicans who ventured out to Las Vegas also sought to cultivate Adelson’s broader network of fellow RJC members. Scott, who held a number of donor meetings over the weekend, was shepherded around the Venetian by Fred Karlinsky, a Florida attorney who sits on the committee’s board of directors. Michigan Republican Lena Epstein, who is seeking a battleground House seat, was the beneficiary of a fundraiser hosted by Bobby Schostak, another board member.
And on Friday afternoon, a number of RJC members attended a fundraiser for Nevada gubernatorial hopeful Adam Laxalt at Yardbird, a Venetian restaurant that serves up Southern fare.
Also taking part in the courtship was scandal-plagued Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who is facing allegations that he blackmailed a woman with whom he was having an affair. A onetime rising star who was buttressed by the RJC during his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, Greitens addressed the conference on Saturday morning but made no mention of the turmoil that has overtaken him.
But Adelson, despite his absence, remained the center of attention during the three-day conference.
“Sheldon is obviously a very generous donor, and I think people across the country are very appreciative that he steps up and helps out with causes that he believes in,” said Patrick Morrisey, a West Virginia Senate candidate who spent the weekend meeting with donors.
“When you’re a candidate, you’re always looking to connect and network with a number of people who really believe in specific causes,” he added. “Sheldon’s been a leader in so many areas, and I think that’s why this is such an attractive venue for people to come to.”