What Sheldon Adelson’s Gingrich Gifts Say About Money in Politics

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Thursday’s Boston Globe explains how the pro-Newt Gingrich forces have suddenly leveled the advertising playing field in Florida, where Mitt Romney’s camp has been spending big for weeks. That of course is largely thanks to Gingrich’s patron saint, the billionaire Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has just written his second $5 million check to the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future. (Actually, the check came from Adelson’s wife, Miriam.) Adelson’s last $5 million injection probably enabled Gingrich to beat Romney in South Carolina, and he’s now given Newt a fighting chance to deal Mitt a potentially lethal blow in Florida.

To learn more about Sheldon Adelson, the eighth-richest man in America, you can read my story in the new print edition, now online here.For now, I’d like to put Adelson in the context of the campaign finance system. Jon Chait argues that the Adelson-Gingrich axis was made possible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United campaign finance ruling. But I’m not sure that’s true. Citizens did not declare, for the first time, that a rich guy like Adelson can give unlimited amounts to cash to a political group that savages one candidate on another’s behalf. Big donors have had that ability for a while. In the 2000 GOP primaries, for instance, the billionaire Wyly brothers of Texas sponsored a $2.5 million ad campaign by a front group called “Republicans for Clean Air” that attacked John McCain’s environmental record. General elections have produced plenty of better-known examples, including 2004’s anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (funded in part by the Wyly brothers) and the George Soros-backed Media Fund, which hammered at George W. Bush.

So what’s the difference between, say, Republicans for Clean Air and the Adelson-funded Winning Our Future? It’s pretty subtle. Before the Citizens ruling, an independent political group funded by unlimited donations like Adelson’s could not explicitly urge people to vote for or against a candidate. It had could engage only in “issue” advocacy, ostensibly to educate voters. Hence Republicans for Clean Air simply blasted McCain’s record without making a “vote for” appeal. But obviously the political damage will be done regardless. The difference now, after the Citizens ruling, is that Winning Our Future can say whatever it wants, including “make sure you go out and vote for Newt Gingrich and not Mitt Romney.” It’s not an entirely trivial distinction; but for a potential donor, it hardly seems decisive.

So why has spending for outside groups skyrocketed?  It’s hard to be sure. Some people argue that Citizens‘ main effect may have been to provide a level of psychological comfort to donors like Adelson, creating a sense of diminished legal jeopardy (there was always the concern that regulators might deem “issue” advertising to cross the line into explicit advocacy) and generally giving a green light to a freer flow of campaign money.

But, certainly, the very rich have long played a big role in the process. That’s why the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, which banned unlimited “soft money” donations to the Republican and Democratic national parties, which were often solicited directly by elected officials, including the President himself. (Remember Johnny Chung?) You can make the argument that it’s better to prevent candidates and elected officials from asking people for multi-million dollar donations. On the other hand, does Newt Gingrich feel any less indebted to Adelson than if he’d solicited those two $5 million checks directly?

I touched on this topic with former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer when I spoke with him for my story on Adelson, with whom Fleischer has worked. “Citizens United is not what created super PACs. Campaign finance reform created them,” Fleischer argued. The only difference between this year’s super PACs and outside groups, including Freedom’s Watch, an Adelson-funded outfit that Fleischer worked for, is that ability to make explicit “elect or defeat” appeals. “Campaign finance reform took soft money away from the political parties and in so doing stripped responsibility from those who could have been held to account,” Fleischer says.

All that said, Adelson’s support for Gingrich is really unprecedented. I don’t believe we’ve ever seen a federal candidate who drew such a high proportion of his funding from a single donor. Adelson’s support is all the more unusual because the Vegas mogul swooped in to help his friend after Newt had been written off as a loser after his Iowa collapse; betting on Newt in early January, as Adelson did, seemed like putting your chips on green at the roulette table.

Still, you can also see Adelson’s support for Newt as the latest twist on a familiar story about the influence very rich people can exert on presidential politics–a story that gets updated and revised from time to time, but which, on some level, never really changes.

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