WASHINGTON — It was a ritual of the modern Republican Party. House and Senate hopefuls locked in a tough reelection fight, outside consultants who wanted to refill their campaign coffers, presidential wannabes who dreamt of being the next commander-in-chief — they all made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas, and specifically to the personal office of the billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. They made sure on their way in to avoid stepping in any excrement left behind by Adelson’s secretary’s dog. And they made even more sure to kiss the ring of arguably the GOP’s biggest rainmaker, the ruddy-faced and pugilistic Adelson, a mega-donor who wielded extraordinary influence in the Republican Party and who reshaped American politics.
Adelson, who has died at the age of 87, embodied the post-Citizens United, money-drenched era of U.S. politics better than any other person.
It now feels like ancient history, but the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 11 years ago this month. Citizens United is arguably the most consequential Supreme Court decision of the 21st century when it comes to politics, democracy, and money. The court’s five conservative justices embraced what legal scholar Rick Hasen described as an “absolutist vision of the First Amendment,” one that freed up corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums of money to elect and defeat candidates for office. (A few years later, Mitt Romney would sum up this view with his now-infamous campaign-trail quip that “Corporations are people, my friend.”) The effect of Citizens United and several later court rulings has been to gut our money-in-politics laws and turn U.S. politics into a playground for the rich.
There was one catch in the Citizens United decision: Corporations and unions could spend those bottomless bags of cash so long as they did so independently of the candidates and campaigns themselves. And so Super PACs were born, supposedly independent (but, as it turned out, not actually that independent) political bazookas that could raise and spend unlimited sums of money. In the 2010 midterms, according to OpenSecrets.org, there were 83 Super PACs and together they spent $63 million — nothing to sneeze at, but a drop in the bucket compared to the overall spending that year. Two years later, the number of registered Super PACs jumped to 1,275, and total Super PAC spending increased by 100-fold. In the 2020 cycle, nearly 2,300 Super PACs raised an eye-popping $3 billion and spent $2 billion.
Republicans were quickest to embrace this new weapon in the campaign arsenal, but within a few years Obama-era Democrats were insisting that they couldn’t unilaterally disarm and so launched their own Super PACs funded by millionaires, billionaires, and corporations. Today, Super PACs are a staple of American politics, their mind-numbingly generic names (“Independence USA,” “American Crossroads,” “Unite the Country”) plastered across the bottom of so many of the ugly attack ads that blanket the TV airwaves in battleground states every two or four years.
Sheldon Adelson quickly established himself as a king — if not the king — of this new, big-money politics. A billionaire who made his fortune in the casino and hotel business, he barely featured in the list of top donors pre-Citizens United. But then there he was, atop the big-donor list for 2012 after he donated nearly $93 million to Super PACs and other independent groups to help elect Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians. He donated another $5 million in 2014 to flip the Senate to the GOP (check), $78 million in 2016 in part to elect Donald Trump (check), and hundreds of millions more in 2020 to reelect Trump and support the GOP (womp). Even more than Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson was the closest thing the Republican Party had to a donor-kingmaker.
In Citizens United, the court’s five conservatives ruled that so long as corporations, millionaires, and billionaires funneled their money into “independent” outfits like Super PACs, and so long as those donations were disclosed to the public, there was no real risk of corruption. Looking back, it was a shockingly naive position for the five justices to take, as the late Sen. John McCain, who had worked to get big money out of politics and who predicted that Citizens United would lead to “huge scandals.” In truth, what Citizens United did was create a system in which the most problematic activities are also perfectly legal. Super PACs have ended up acting as arms of the political parties and presidential campaigns, and transparency has only meant that politicians know exactly whose rings need kissing.
Adelson’s giving illustrates how wobbly the court’s reasoning was when it said corruption wasn’t an issue if all those millions of dollars flowed into “independent” groups. Adelson had his own set of asks, some of them business-related (banning online casinos that cut into his companies’ revenue), some of them personal (moving the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem). Politicians who received Adelson’s money dutifully set out to do his bidding: Adelson has raised money for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for instance, and Graham has introduced legislation to outlaw online gambling. He didn’t win that fight, but he did live long enough to see the U.S. embassy in Israel moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; at the official unveiling in May 2018, he sat in the front row.
At the end of his life, Adelson stood for all that was wrong with the Citizens United era, when the center of gravity in our political system shifted away from the parties and moved toward the oligarchs and business titans on the left and the right who have spent their fortunes freely on elections, the new masters in the art and science of converting financial capital into political capital.
Now, the Biden administration and incoming Democratic Congress face calls to prioritize major ethics reforms. Adelson’s record is a testament to just how powerful one, wealthy individual could be, and a timely reminder of the need to repair our democracy before it’s too late.