Reporting from Washington and Las Vegas—On a Strip packed with colorful, sometimes controversial gambling titans, Sheldon Adelson plays politics a little differently from the rest.
The casino barons are a mostly pragmatic bunch, shifting campaign donations to favor the party in power. Not Adelson, the chief executive of Las Vegas Sands, whose family almost single-handedly funded the revival of Newt Gingrich's Republican presidential bid.
Adelson's not big on interviews or glad-handing. He doesn't care about buffing his public image.
"He's the same kind of guy Gingrich is trying to be — a guy who is part of the establishment but who thinks of himself or tries to portray himself as anti-establishment," said Jon Ralston, a political commentator in Nevada. "I think people don't really realize the extent to which he is really a loner."
That much became clear this week, when campaign finance records were released by presidential campaigns and super PACs, independent political groups that can accept massive contributions.
In 2008, Adelson and other Vegas gambling executives showered money on the presidential field, partly because of their long-standing ties with Republican nominee — and frequent craps player —Sen. John McCain.
In 2011, the Strip mostly kept its pocketbook closed, waiting to see who emerged from an increasingly nasty GOP primary.
There was a notable exception: Adelson, the world's 16th-wealthiest person. "He's the kind of person who takes very, very strong positions regardless of what other people are taking," said William Eadington, who studies the gambling industry at the University of Nevada, Reno.
In business, that's usually paid off.
Adelson quickly spotted the potential of Macau, now the world's largest gambling market. But he's also ruffled Strip peers by opposing regulated online poker and picking fights with other operators. "I think they think he's a little bit crazy and a loose cannon, but it never really gets said as such," Eadington said.
Adelson and Gingrich met while Gingrich was speaker of the House of Representatives and bonded over their strong support of Israel. From 2006 to 2010, Adelson poured at least $7 million into a group that served as the launching pad for Gingrich's presidential run.
When the Adelsons invested in the Gingrich super PAC last month, it paved the way for the candidate's South Carolina victory. "He believes that his friend is the one guy of everybody in the race that can save America," said George Harris, a local restaurant owner who has worked for Adelson.
An Adelson spokesman declined to comment.
In many ways, Adelson's dive into the presidential primary reflected a longtime strategy. Other casino moguls have been content to navigate the political landscape. Adelson has tried to reshape it to his liking.
In the late 1990s, as Adelson was building his Venetian resort, he funded a blitzkrieg of ads in hopes of restocking the Clark County Commission with Republicans. (For the most part, he failed.) While his gambling rivals cut generous deals with the local casino workers union, Adelson refused. He offered lucrative wages and benefits to quash organizing drives, and his resorts remain among the few Strip properties without a labor pact.
Adelson's political reach gradually expanded, as did his access to power. His company took credit with Chinese leadership for persuading then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to kill a bill opposing Beijng's Olympics bid, a high-ranking Sands executive said during testimony in a 2008 trial.
The most glaring example came during the rough-and-tumble race in Nevada between Republican Sharron Angle and Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. The casino industry panicked at the idea of losing Reid's muscle in Washington and donated heavily to his campaign. The Adelsons gave a token amount to Angle, whom Reid trounced on election day.
Adelson's largesse routinely fans furor. In 2008, Democrats ran radio ads in Louisiana and Mississippi linking Republican candidates to Adelson and his business interests in China, a country the ads said "steals our jobs, persecutes Christians, uses forced labor and forces women to have abortions." Both Republicans lost.
With his support of Gingrich, Adelson again finds himself in the political cross hairs. When county Republicans agreed to hold a post-sundown caucus Saturday for observant Jews,Rep. Ron Paul's campaign grumbled that it was at the behest of Gingrich's "billionaire buddy." Though Adelson later said the decision wasn't his handiwork, it was hard to overlook the location of the special caucus: a private school named after Adelson.
Geiger reported from Washington and powers from Las Vegas.
Times staff writer Michael J. Mishak in Las Vegas contributed to this report.