Millions at stake, the ‘Adelson primary’ is neck and neck

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

American businessman Sheldon Adelson with his wife, Miriam Adelson, center, during a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It is the biggest financial prize in Republican presidential politics: the endorsement of Sheldon Adelson, the multibillionaire casino magnate legendary for his willingness to spend huge sums to promote the candidates of his choosing.

But this year the bidding to become the winner of what is informally called the “Adelson primary” has gotten complicated. After being wooed by virtually all the major GOP contenders, the 82-year-old Adelson was believed to be close to announcing his backing of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shortly after the Dec. 15 Republican debate — an event that, conveniently enough, is being held at the Venetian Las Vegas, a hotel Adelson owns.

That scenario, however, has run into resistance from a surprising source: Miriam Adelson, the megadonor’s strong-willed and equally hawkish wife. An Israeli-born physician, Miriam Adelson has become enamored of late with Ted Cruz, according to four Republican sources close to the couple. The Texas senator has impressed her with his unwavering toughness on national security issues, especially his support for Israel, the issue that the couple cares most passionately about.

“He really likes Marco, but she really likes Cruz — and it’s a standoff,” said one well-placed Republican fundraiser familiar with Adelson family dynamics.

It’s a standoff that could result in an awkward split decision — or no decision at all, according to some GOP insiders. Both the Adelsons give generously in their own names, almost always in tandem: The couple’s publicly reported donations exceeded $98 million during the 2012 election. Miriam Adelson wrote nearly half those checks personally, totaling more than $47 million, usually delivering them on the same day her husband wrote seven-figure checks for about the same amount.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio walks offstage after speaking at a community rally. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But one prediction that is gaining traction in GOP circles is that the Adelsons may end up sitting out the early GOP primaries altogether, rather than choose sides and risk funding attack ads against a candidate one of them actually favors. Some say they could even go their separate ways, at least in the early stages of the contest. “She’s very capable of doing whatever she wants,” said one GOP insider in regular touch with the Adelsons. “If she wants to support Cruz, there’s nothing stopping her.” (Spokesmen for Adelson and for Cruz did not respond to requests for comment. Rubio spokesman Alex Conant emailed: “I don’t comment on the Adelsons.”)

The Adelsons’ dilemma comes at a critical juncture in the GOP race. Rubio and Cruz are openly sniping at each other over national security issues as they vie to become the “responsible” conservative alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump.

In recent days, a super-PAC allied with Rubio has begun running attack ads blasting Cruz for allegedly voting to “weaken America’s ability to identify and hunt down terrorists” — a reference to the Texas senator’s support for legislation that this week ended bulk collection of Americans’ phone records by the NSA. Cruz shot back that the pro-Rubio ad was “impugning” his patriotism, while his campaign released its own attack ads in Iowa criticizing Rubio for his past support for the so-called Gang of Eight immigration reform bill that would have given Obama authority “to admit even more Syrian refugees.” (Rubio has since backed away from his support for the bill.)

The bidding in the Adelson primary moves into its next phase Thursday when the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a group heavily backed by Adelson, hosts a presidential forum at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. The Adelsons won’t be present — they are traveling in South Africa this week. But notably, all 14 GOP candidates (including Rubio and Cruz) are confirmed speakers, hoping to use the event as an opportunity to showcase their hardline national security credentials.

“It’s the only forum outside of the debates where every Republican presidential candidate is going to appear,” even Jim Gilmore, says Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC.

(Conveniently, many of the candidates and their super-PACs are also holding fundraisers tied to the event in hopes of raking in dollars from other wealthy members of the RJC. Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise super-PAC has a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the Reagan building Thursday morning aimed at RJC donors; Rubio has his own campaign fundraiser, co-chaired by Wayne Berman, his national finance chairman and an RJC board member, on the same day at noon.)

The behind-the-scenes wooing of the Adelsons has been underway for months — a graphic testament to the outside influence that one or two fabulously wealthy donors can have on the presidential race. According to an account first reported by National Review, Jeb Bush initially fell out of Sheldon Adelson’s favor after one of his foreign policy advisers, former Secretary of State James Baker, spoke at an event sponsored by J Street, an American Jewish “pro-peace” group that supports Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The appearance prompted the casino magnate to send word that the move cost the former Florida governor “a lot of money,” while associates of Adelson were quoted as saying that Bush was “dead to him.”

Bush scrambled to make amends. One top GOP donor who is close to the Adelsons told Yahoo News that he quickly got a phone call from Bush distancing himself from Baker. Bush “told me that he [Baker] was just on a list and that he’s never called him for any advice,” said the donor, who, like most others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified publicly. The donor, at Bush’s request, then passed this along to Adelson. It was “helpful,” the donor said, in mollifying Adelson.

Rubio, meanwhile, saw an opportunity and began aggressively courting the Adelsons, reportedly calling the mogul on the phone every two weeks to give him detailed updates on his campaign. The two also had a private dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak DC, a restaurant near Capitol Hill, where they talked for hours about their families and personal lives, according to a Politico account last April that proclaimed Rubio the “frontrunner” in the Adelson primary.

But as in other aspects of his campaign, Cruz — mostly below the radar — has been assiduously courting the Adelsons as well as other conservative Jewish donors, building bridges with his base among evangelical Christians who also support Israel. Last year, Rubio named Nick Muzin, an Orthodox Jew and medical doctor with a law degree from Yale, as his deputy chief of staff. Muzin now also works on the campaign, doing “outreach” with Jewish contributors. With the Adelsons on hand, Cruz was a keynote speaker (along with Rev. John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel and a leading figure in the religious right) last December at the annual gala of the Zionist Organization of America. As can be seen on a YouTube video that has made the rounds in GOP donor circles, Cruz brought down the house by recounting how he stood up to a Christian group that included supporters of Hezbollah, telling them: “If you will not stand with the Jews, I will not stand with you,” prompting the crowd to erupt in chants of “Go, Ted, Go!”

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at a meeting in Las Vegas. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Cruz had another chance to cultivate the couple’s support last May when he received a Protector of Israel award at Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s World Values Network and sat at the head table with the Adelsons. “Sen. Cruz is a phenomenal friend of Israel, and the Adelsons have made it clear that Israel is the top priority for them,” Boteach told Yahoo News.

A Cruz ally who is closely connected to conservative Jewish circles tells Yahoo News that the Texas senator now makes frequent phone calls to the Adelsons and has impressed Sheldon as well as Miriam. “She likes passionate, ideas-driven people,” says the Cruz supporter. But even if Cruz’ courtship does not result in actual support, his cultivation has a strategic purpose. “This is not just about an endorsement,” says the supporter who is familiar with the calls. “It’s about not being on the other side of them. You don’t want their money going to [super-PAC] attack ads against you.”

Some in GOP circles say Cruz might have set himself back this week when he gave an interview to Bloomberg News in which, in an effort to differentiate himself from Rubio, he took a potshot at “aggressive Washington neo-cons” — a line that is likely to offend the Adelsons.

But others say their sense from talking to Sheldon Adelson in recent weeks is that the couple may just end up biding their time to see how the race shakes out. In the last presidential race, they poured $15 million into a Newt Gingrich-allied super-PAC — only to see it squandered when the former speaker dropped out. This time, one of the donors quoted in this story said, both Adelsons want to be more “strategic.” “I talked to him recently, and he told me he’s not in any hurry,” the donor said.