GOP hopefuls betting on mega donor Sheldon Adelson in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — A slate of potential Republican presidential candidates is descending upon Las Vegas to court one of the GOP’s most powerful patrons.

Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson is the main attraction for White House hopefuls as the Republican Jewish Coalition begins its annual “spring leadership meeting” Thursday along the city’s storied strip, the site of Adelson’s Venetian resort hotel and casino.

With an eye toward the 2016 presidential contest, prospective candidates and their aides have been aggressively courting such donors for months, but not like this. Already being called “the Sheldon primary,” the four-day event features Scotch tastings, private roundtable discussions and golf and poker tournaments that bring together politicians and some of the GOP’s top money men, a powerful list Adelson leads.

The 80-year-old Boston native almost single-handedly bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid in 2012 before shifting his personal fortune toward Mitt Romney’s campaign, and those close to Adelson say he’s tired of supporting GOP losers. Neither Gingrich nor Romney is at this year’s gathering, which features prospective presidential contenders including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Other high-profile participants include former Vice President Dick Cheney and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is also in Las Vegas this week.

Most of the officials were due to arrive Friday and Saturday, but Bush is set to address donors Thursday evening at an airport hangar. He appeared at a Las Vegas local high school earlier in the day to promote education reform, his primary focus since leaving office in 2007.

Asked about legislative remedies to improve public education, he suggested adding a graduation requirement that students take at least one digital course every year.

“Be big or go home,” Bush told students inside the Advanced Technologies Academy, a public school seven miles away from the Venetian.

He didn’t speak to reporters invited to the education discussion, other than to confirm that he would meet with Adelson later in the day.

“I’m going to see him tonight for sure,” Bush said while hurrying out of the high school lecture hall.

His evening appearance with Adelson and other donors is closed to the news media.

The Republican conference, like the increasingly murky world of campaign finance, is shrouded in secrecy.

Adelson rarely speaks publicly. And just one event is open to the media during the four-day gathering: a Saturday meeting with Walker, Christie and Kasich that’s expected to feature a question-and-answer session. Attendees have been told that questions this year must be submitted in advance, a break from tradition thought to help protect Christie from embarrassing questions about his recent struggles in New Jersey.

Adelson, known for his devotion to Israel, is the Republican Jewish Coalition’s most influential benefactor. He donated more than $90 million to political candidates and super PACs in the last election cycle. His total donations may never be quantified publicly because various politically active groups that operate as nonprofit organizations don’t have to report the sources of their funds.

Several Republican operatives who regularly speak to reporters were reluctant to comment on Adelson and his role in the next presidential contest. Those who did offered general praise of his generosity beyond politics.

Charlie Spies, who led the super PAC that backed Romney in 2012, said Adelson and his wife “are generous philanthropists that back causes ranging from educational to pro-Israel to political. It is often lost in the hype over their political giving that there are schools, museums and nonprofit organizations around the world with the Adelson name on them.”

Adelson gave the pro-Romney super PAC $15 million in four months before the last presidential election.

A Walker spokesman offered only a vague explanation when asked why the Wisconsin governor was attending the Las Vegas meeting.

“The governor remains focused on 2014 and sharing his common-sense conservative message with like-minded leaders,” Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said.

Adelson is considered one of the 10 richest people in the world, with a net worth exceeding $40 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He is also the driving force behind the push to bring the Republican National Convention to Las Vegas in 2016.

STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Wisconsin contributed to this report.

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