The Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon G. Adelson and his wife are giving more than $40 million to groups backing Republican congressional candidates, according to campaign filings and interviews with Republican strategists, disregarding repeated entreaties for support from allies of Donald Trump and dealing a major setback to Trump’s efforts to rally the deepest-pocketed Republican givers.
The contributions will again make Adelson and his family among the largest known donors in American politics, after several years in which they played a more subdued role in national Republican fundraising. But Adelson’s decision to deploy his wealth down ballot, less than two months before Election Day, also reflects the reluctance of most of the biggest Republican donors to invest in their party’s standard-bearer.
Adelson once dangled the possibility of giving as much as $100 million to pro-Trump groups, an infusion that at a stroke would have made the groups financially competitive against Hillary Clinton. But in recent weeks, the mercurial casino magnate — who entertained but ultimately rebuffed pitches from an array of Republican candidates during the party’s nominating contest this election cycle — became convinced that Trump’s chances of victory had diminished, according to Republicans briefed on his decision.
The Adelson family’s biggest contributions are going instead to two super PACs backing Senate and House Republicans, each of which will get $20 million, making Adelson the single largest known donor to political organizations in the country.
Now Trump heads toward Nov. 8 with only limited financial help from super PACs and outside groups that can accept unlimited contributions from rich donors. Groups supporting Trump have aired just $12 million in broadcast advertising, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Clinton’s allies, buoyed by a sharp increase in giving by wealthy liberals on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, are expected to spend at least $160 million by Election Day.
“If you want to help that Senate candidate or that gubernatorial candidate, the best way we could have done it was to nominate any of the other people who were running,” said Douglas Heye, a former adviser to House Republicans. “That’s not the reality of the world right now. The best way to do that now is to help that campaign directly.”
Two Republicans with knowledge of his giving said that Adelson was allocating a far smaller sum, $5 million, to benefit the top of the Republican ticket: token support by Adelson’s standards.
And in a striking move, the money will go not to any of the pro-Trump super PACs but to organizations controlled by a fellow billionaire, Joe Ricketts, a Wyoming investor, whose own political operation will decide how to spend it. The Ricketts family spent millions of dollars during the primaries to defeat Trump, who responded with a Twitter message that the Rickettses “better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”
A spokesman for Adelson declined to comment.
“Everyone reached out to him. He promised $100 million,” said Ed Rollins, an adviser to Great America, one of several outside groups supporting Trump. “At this point in time, he’s like everyone else. Now he’s going to be a player, just not to the same extent.”
Trump’s efforts have been hampered in part by confusion: There are at least three competing super PACs supporting him. One is controlled and so far solely funded by the New York billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who have close ties to Trump’s campaign team. Two others, Great America PAC and Rebuild America Now, are controlled by rival teams of consultants, but each has received a blessing of sorts from the Trump family. Trump’s son Eric appeared at a fundraiser this month for Great America, while another son, Donald Jr., was the special guest at an event for Rebuild America Now less than a week later.
While Donald Trump has enjoyed success for a Republican presidential candidate in raising small contributions, the same qualities that have fired up his grass-roots supporters have turned off many wealthier Republican contributors, making it difficult for both Trump and the Republican National Committee to keep pace among larger donors.
Adelson at one point appeared to be the biggest potential backer in Trump’s corner. This spring, he published an op-ed article endorsing Trump and urging other Republicans to get behind him, and in August he donated $1.5 million to the Republican convention, where Trump was formally nominated in July.
But in the months since, Trump has shrugged off private pleas from Adelson and others within his party to modulate his tone and message against Clinton.
Those issues came to a head at a meeting this month of major conservative donors convened by the billionaire hedge fund executive Paul Singer, a resolute Trump opponent who has opined that Trump’s campaign proposals would cause a “widespread global depression” if enacted.
Representatives of the Senate Leadership Fund and Americans for Prosperity, the political organization overseen by the billionaire industrialists David H. and Charles G. Koch, were among those pitching donors at the meeting. So was the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, who told donors that he needed to raise another $60 million to $70 million to support the party and Trump through Nov. 8.
According to a person who attended, Priebus urged donors to view the Republican slate as a package and argued that supporting Trump would help down-ballot races.
But the Kochs’ political organization, backed by an overlapping group of large conservative donors, is so far steering clear of the presidential race and focusing its efforts on the House and Senate. And some of the top Republican donors in the country have now, like Adelson, given to the Koch organization or the Senate Leadership Fund, according to Tuesday’s filings. These donors include Singer, the Chicago hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, and a company controlled by Frank L. VanderSloot, a prominent Idaho businessman.
Adelson, whose fortune is estimated at almost $32 billion, could easily afford to spend more for Trump in the weeks ahead. But he is rapidly running out of time to have an effect on the race, and even his contributions to Republican congressional efforts are coming late in the game, when the price of advertising is climbing drastically and there are fewer undecided voters to persuade. In part to mitigate those costs, the Senate Leadership Fund reserved $40 million in fall advertising in June, before the cash was available to pay for it.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, said in an interview on Tuesday that he was pouring another $15 million into For Our Future, a joint super PAC he is running with several labor unions. The group is spending money in seven swing states, chiefly on field organizing and voter mobilization. It aims to knock on 8 million doors between now and the election.
“We believe that that form of communication is the way to actually engage people,” Steyer said.