Las Vegas casino baron and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the hawkish backer of Israel’s right-wing government who dumped over $15 million into a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich for president, could play just as big in the Nevada Senate campaign, where the employee he fired 15 years ago is locked in a tight race with the Republican incumbent.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents liberal Clark County in and around Sin City, hopes to capitalize on favorable demographic trends to take out Republican Senator Dean Heller, the congressman appointed to the seat after John Ensign’s sex scandal sent him into early retirement. Traditionally a Republican stronghold — George W. Bush won it easily in 2000 and 2004 — the Silver State has moved steadily to the left over the past decade. President Obama won 55 percent of the vote in 2008, buoyed by strong support from a growing Latino electorate. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, far from popular, was able to hang on in 2010 by portraying his opponent, Sharron Angle, as a Tea Party extremist.
The latest Public Policy Polling survey of the race shows Berkley performing well, but trailing Heller 46 to 43 percent. Obama, on the other hand, leads presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney 51 to 43 percent.
“She’s not very well known outside of her Clark County base,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada in Reno and an expert on local politics. “If Obama organizes well and wins Nevada, she will benefit from that. There will be spillover, coattails.”
But Adelson, who employed Berkley for some years as vice-president of legal and governmental affairs at his Las Vegas Sands corporation, has shown no qualms about taking advantage of the Citizens United campaign finance terrain to settle personal scores. That’s why he suggested he was willing to sink as much as $100 million into Newt’s presidential bid by donating it to a supportive Super PAC, a thank-you for bills the Speaker shepherded through Congress that benefited his casino business — and perhaps also for Gingrich’s comment that Palestinians are an “invented people.”
“He despises Shelley Berkley,” Jon Ralston, a Nevada political sage who hosts a popular television program on local politics, said of Adelson. “There’s no fixing it.”
According to Berkley, “My relationship with him began to sour the moment I urged him to hold jobs open at the Venetian [casino] for former Sands workers. The more I encouraged cooperation with the workers, the more I incurred Mr. Adelson’s wrath.”
The comments came in the midst of the PR war the two waged after Adelson fired her (he claimed she violated attorney-client privilege) and Berkley began her 1998 congressional campaign. Now, as then, Berkley will be forced to explain some crass (or just pragmatic) political advice, including audio tapes on which she suggests Adelson offer favors and financial contributions to Clark County commissioners and judges.
A barrage of negative TV commercials funded by Adelson’s millions (and channeled through a Super PAC) would make for sweet revenge. And with Berkley still introducing herself to voters in northern and rural Nevada, early spending that highlights the tapes (and her distinct New York accent) could make a permanent impression.
“People in the North do not like the South,” said Ralston. “They think we’re all out to steal their water.”