Gambling on 2012: How the GOP Hopefuls Handle Casino Cash

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The Center for Public Integrity came out swinging Fridaywith a blistering story alleging that “Newt Gingrich is straddling a fine line” by taking millions of dollars from a Las Vegas Casino boss, while at the same time trying to court evangelical voters for the 2012 nomination. But I would not put all my chips on that claim.

There is nothing new about Gingrich’s willingness to take fat checks from Sheldon Adelson, the founder of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which operates the Venetian and the Palazzo in Las Vegas, among others around the world. Nor is Adelson a stranger to GOP fund-raising circles. The casino boss, who faces accusations of improprieties related to his operations in Macau, which he denies, has been giving the money to conservative causes for years, in part because he has been at war with local unions in Las Vegas, and in part because of his hawkish foreign policy views and support for Israel. He was a major donor to George W. Bush, giving one $250,000 check to fund Bush’s second inaugural. He was also the principle backer of Freedom’s Watch, a group which ran third party spots supporting the Bush war on terror and opposing a number of Democrats.

In fact, Mitt Romney, a Mormon who doesn’t gamble, will be paying homage to Adelson this weekend by appearing at his hotel, the Venetian in Las Vegas, for the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group for which Adelson holds a seat on the board of directors. (Romney speaks tomorrow; in Massachusetts, Gov. Romney initially supported an expansion of gambling in the state, but later pulled back when the state budget outlook improved.) But let’s pull the lens back a little farther. Back in 2008, John McCain made no secret of his taste for hot dice, and that didn’t stop him from getting the nomination. And this year, several other likely GOP candidates have shown a taste for gaming, at least as an economic development tool.

Tim Pawlenty, as governor of Minnesota, pushed to open a state-operated casino back in 2005, though the effort failed. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is a major gaming booster in his home state, and recently held a fundraiser hosted by casino mogul Steve Wynn, Adelson’s big rival on Las Vegas strip. (For $5,000, Barbour offered donors a chance to meet Wynn.) According to the Center for Responsive Politics, casino cash has historically split between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, though in recent years, in part because of the Obama fund-raising juggernaut, Democrats have been pulling away.

Newt Gingrich still faces a steep uphill climb for evangelical support, but gambling is not likely to be the hangup. After all, he will have to pass the evangelical test in the first caucus state of Iowa, a state where gambling has been legal, in some form, for about 20 years, and where there are now 17 operating casinos.

That said, I do think the Center for Public Integrity is on to something by combing through Gingrich’s donors. No other candidate has raised as much in fat, disclosed checks, as Gingrich, and I have no doubt that there is much more to learn by mining these records. Not many presidential candidates have received millions of dollars from individual rich guys; this is a record he cannot easily dismiss.

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