The Sheldon Primary and Online Poker: Much Ado Already Done

The convening of last week’s annual Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, widely termed the “Sheldon Primary” in mainstream US media reports, represented another step in the forced placement of the topic of Internet gambling (including online poker) on America’s national political stage.

That it’s happening now is more an accident of political timing more than anything else – the confluence of Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson’s personal desire to profoundly reshape the American political system more to his personal liking, and his willingness to spend a significant chunk of his $38 billion political fortune to do it.

The RJC convenes each spring in Las Vegas, courtesy of Adelson and his host casino, the Venetian, and this year’s meet-up was special.  No less than four presumptive 2016 US Presidential candidates accepted invitations to participate at the RJC, to meet with Adelson personally.  The four, all sitting governors of US states – Chris Christie of New Jersey, Jeb Bush of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio – were there to try and win Adelson’s favor and access Adelson’s deep, deep political pockets.

Republican Jewish Coalition Meeting

One of them will likely emerge as a frontrunner in 2016, and will therefore have access to Adelson’s tens of millions in waiting political largesse.  Voters can also be assured that whoever gets Adelson’s approval will also be expected to proudly wave the “No Internet Gambling” banner, since Adelson has reserved another slice of his fortune in an effort to keep his land-based casino empire competition-free, vowing to spend “whatever it takes.”

The mainstream political reports having fun with the whole tawdry “Sheldon Primary” uniformly note that the online-gambling ban that Adelson desires is part of the whole package.  Perhaps no piece focused on that angle more directly than this piece at the conservative National Journal, “Did Sheldon Adelson Just Turn the Entire GOP Presidential Field Against Internet Poker?”

That seems like the core question, but as you’ll see, it isn’t. 

Show Me the Money, Honey

Despite the presidential hopefuls beating down the Venetian’s doors, most of them care about the money a lot more than they do about Adelson’s single-issue dream.  The fact is, Internet gambling is so far down the list of issues that decide American elections that it’s virtually irrelevant.  That also makes it easy for presidential wanna-bes to show up on Adelson’s stoop, promising the world.

It really doesn’t matter.

Remember also that there was likely no single political benefactor larger than Sheldon Adelson during the United States’ 2012 political cycle.  Adelson gave at least $15 million to Newt Gingrich during the primaries, which was on top of millions more given to Gingrich in previous years for lobbying and advising purposes. 

When the primary clock finally chimed midnight and Gingrich’s carriage inevitably reverted to a pumpkin, Adelson dumped another $30 million into the dark-money coffers of losing Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney

All told, Adelson spent more than $90 million backing GOP candidates in 2012, almost all of whom lost anyway.  Still, despite Adelson’s knack for riding losers, those tens of millions are way too enticing.  A few million dollars is big political money, enough to potentially swing a state or two through judicious application of mass-media advertising buys at a crucial pre-election moment.  Adelson’s one 2012 success was essentially that, the virtual purchase of one of the two US Senate seats in Nevada. 

In that race, Adelson’s millions in donations to Sen. Dean Heller helping narrowly keep his own former corporate accountant, Democrat Shelley Berkley, out of a Senate seat.

What Adelson was able to accomplish in Nevada is what he wants to do nationally, and that’s been the growing purpose of his annual RJC get-together.  As Adelson famously said in a 2012 Forbes interview, “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections.  But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.

Adelson is also a prominent backer of the Likud faction of the Israeli political scene, and has spent similarly for pro-Israel purposes.  Adelson has also drawn attention for inflammatory pro-Israel comments, such as one incitement to violence asking Israel to bomb the Iranian desert as a warning against nuclear proliferation, which as one would expect, do little for Middle East and global relations.  The RJC itself remains one of the foundations of the United States’ jingoistic neo-conservative movement, which in turn has successfully co-opted the right-wing populist “Tea Party” push, in the process building a formidable far-right voting bloc. 

Given all that, it’s Adelson’s anti-online-gambling push that’s the outlier among the larger topics on the RJC agenda, but since it’s in tune with the previous principles already on record, the RJC attendees and the visiting pols just let the rich old host have his way.

The GOP’s Existing Anti Online Gambling Plank

What most of the mainstream reports about the “Adelson Primary” miss is that the GOP itself is already on record as being against online gambling.  The GOP’s national platform, crafted each four years (or once per presidential election cycle), has included an anti-online-gambling plank ever since 2000.

With a nod to Martin Harris’s Short-Stacked Shamus blog for archiving them, here are the relevant GOP party planks.

2012, under “Making the Internet Family-Friendly”:

“Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support the prohibition of gambling over the Internet and call for reversal of the Justice Department’s decision distorting the formerly accepted meaning of the Wire Act that could open the door to Internet betting.”

2008, under “Protecting our Families”: “Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support the law prohibiting gambling over the Internet.”  (The referenced “law,” presumably the 2006 UIGEA, actually does no such prohibition.)

2004, in an oddly misplaced location dealing with higher-education matters, maybe because a lot of college students like to play poker:

“Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support legislation prohibiting gambling over the Internet or in student athletics by student athletes who are participating in competitive sports.”

The same language appeared in 2000, not long after Internet-based gambling became a reality:

“Millions of Americans suffer from problem or pathological gambling that can destroy families. We support legislation prohibiting gambling over the Internet or in student athletics by student athletes who are participating in competitive sports.”

GOP – “Grand Old Party” 

As one can see, the current GOP stance has evolved out of what was originally a well-intentioned effort to keep sportsbetting off college campuses, and also, presumably, to preserve the integrity of college-level amateur athletics.  Yet a decade and a half later, it’s been taken to weird extremes, backed by big-money hypocrites such as Adelson and embraced by politicians catering to a sub-core constituency that’s more important in primaries than in the general election.

Posturing for the Primaries, Not the Main Election

As one can see, the above evolution of the GOP platform plank represents posturing for the GOP’s nascent neo-con, Tea Party, which is dedicated enough to control the primary cycle but is extreme enough to not be able to win national general elections, as 2008 and 2012 have shown. 

The platform planks such as the anti-online-gambling position are therefore easy enough to pledge (especially in exchange for big bucks such as Adelson’s), but are non-binding, and in a fiscal showdown against opposing conservative interests, might not even come out on top.

For these pols, it’s all about preaching to the choir.  South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham made a similar Vegas pilgrimage a few months ago.  South Carolina is a very conservative, very anti-gambling state, and Graham needed Las Vegas casino dollars for his reelection campaign about as much as Guy Laliberte needs a backer to play a poker tournament.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham

When asked about whether Adelson had bought Graham’s anti-online-gambling support, Graham then reversed the question, pitching it in conservative South Carolina terms.  At a news conference last month, Graham said, “I would say that Sheldon has aligned himself with most Baptists in South Carolina.”

And that in turn leads to the whole pro-online / anti-online gambling question for the United States.  It’s not quite fair to say the GOP is always against online gambling, nor that the Democrats are always for it, but there’s a skew in that direction.  A recent list published by the Poker Players Alliance of 19 prominent politicians who have already announced support for the anti-online Adelson-Graham and Adelson-Chaffetz bills shows 15 Republicans and four Democrats, and that’s indicative of the real split; being against online gambling – Adelson’s hypocritical machinations not withstanding – is an extension of a more general opposition to all forms of gambling.

And that’s a far-right, conservative issue.

Another piece of evidence is the US Presidential Electoral College map for the 2012 election.  [Author’s note: Link to Wiki page for image, which should be usable under Creative Commons —]  It’s not a complete match, but those states which are largely Democratic and went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 are in general more likely to be states favoring the advent of online gambling. 

The opposite is also true, though a few states are notable exceptions.  Democratic Hawaii and Washington, for instance, are notable states against online gambling, though both reached that position through protectionist legislation, one via tribal-backed legislation and the other through a defense of tourism.  Mostly, though, it’s the hardline GOP states where the ban on Internet gambling plays well, despite the protests of conservative-minded poker fans.

For online poker, this is actually good news.  Since online poker is minor issue with little ability to sway major blocs of voters, Adelson’s tens of millions in political backing may be a long-term loser.  States that already have some form of online gambling or have expressed legislative interest in doing so represent a solid slice of the Electoral College’s 538-vote tally, meaning that even with the backing of the GOP’s right-wing core, attempts to rewrite the Wire Act are swimming against the current.

And that in turn, may reduce the so-called “Adelson Primary” to nothing more than an expensive political sideshow.

Haley Hintze

Veteran poker writer and editor Haley Hintze offers a uniquely independent and entertaining look at many of the most newsworthy topics in poker.  Noted for her lengthy series that helped expose the cheaters behind the Absolute Poker and UltimateBet scandals, she remains a champion of consumer interests and fair play.

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